Infinite Machines: 3 — Turking Interfaces

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Infinite Machine

At its peak, the 18th century Mechanical Turk toured the world; leaving audiences in awe at its seemingly advanced ability to beat opponents in chess. It only became publicly known after decades the Turk had a human chess master below who would manipulate the machine to make moves on their behalf. Over two centuries later in 2017, Google’s AlphaGo beat the world’s best Go player with no human intervention. In this case, the core technology evolved from human to machine, but personas were constructed along the way to disguise human labor behind the interface.

Beyond entertainment, this type of persona construction extends to humans used for service labor. As trains became commercialized in the 1860’s, black porters were known as George’s amongst passengers. This name comes from George Pullman, manufacturer of the Pullman Sleeper car. The George, similar to the Turk, functioned as a mask to human identities. Though George’s (as an interface) represented a deeper charade of power relationships.

Amazon adopted the Mechanical Turk name for one of their platforms, and it has since grown to be the world’s largest online workforce, comprising roughly 500,000 contract-based employees around the world. These ‘turkers’ help researchers and tech companies bring structure to unstructured data and train AI; with activities ranging from spotting fake news to filling out surveys. While it’s known that humans are behind the interface, they’re represented only as a string of letters and numbers to requestors.

In Finland, the Criminal Sanctions Agency is partnering with Vainu, an enterprise SaaS tech company, to employ prisoners as ‘turkers’ to validate data that will help organizations arrive at more comprehensive business decisions. While the company boasts the prisoners are gaining transferable skills, the dissonance between the worlds of the end user and prisoner blur the lines of where the human labor ends and the machine begins.

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About James Vanié

James is a writer and design strategist. Tweets at @jamesvanie.

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