Big Search, Mechanical Turk and why Amazon is at least as cool as Google

Adam Green points to Scoble who re-discover and discover, respectively, Amazon's street by street, address by address, photographic coverage of the map of, what, the universe? It's a neat new user interface of something they've had for a while, actually, but still, quite cool!

some nuggets:

"Will I use it? Hell, yeah, it is damn useful. I can point you to Border Cafe in Harvard Square, which just happens to be one of the best college student dives in the country." (from Darwinian Web, Adam's new blog)


"But, if you need to know what a store looks like before going there, Amazon is definitely something you should check out." (from Scobelizer)


"Is your house on their map? It’s pretty creepy to have pictures of your neighborhood on line. Intellectually, it makes perfect sense, but it still creeps me out." (from a comment to Scoble's post)

and finally...

"Unfortunately, the image defaults to the side of the street with Starbucks. You'll have to click the film strip for the opposite side of Church Street." (again from Darwinian Web)

Which brings up Mechanical Turk, the new, totally clever Amazon service which some have written about but somehow seem to have escaped Scoble's all-seeing-eye.

So what is Mechanical Turk (see this for the origin of the name)? It's an Amazon service generates solutions to little problems or tasks which are trivial for humans and impossible for computers (exaggerating a little here.) What kinds of problems are these? Oh say choosing what photograph best represents the storefront of the Border Cafe!

What I imagine is this: Amazon has outsourced a bunch of SUVs equipped with digital cameras and a GPS to drive up and down all streets in the US. The cameras automatically snap picture after picture, each encoded with the current lat long. Using maps and directories each address will match several pictures. The remaining problem is to select the best one to represent the storefront. A very menial task, but one that requires a person.

Enter Mechanical Turk. Anyone with an Amazon account can sign up and request to 'complete simple tasks that people do better than computers, and get paid for it." I tried this and was presented with sets of 3 to 6 photos. My job: decide which one most looks like the front door of say, Ernie's Body Shop, 1234 Main Hyway, Maine. I think each task paid something like 3 or 5 cents. Clever, eh?

Even cooler, Amazon chose to build this as a totally general mechanism, with APIs for both sides of the transaction. API's to define tasks, check results, qualify workers etc.. And APIs to work on problems and suggest solutions. Pure genius!

So, let's say I have a task like, answer the question: "Is this web page a blog or not?" (a question that might be of interest to BlogBridge) I could:

  1. Create a list of URLs that I want to check out

  2. Add them to Mechanical Turk as projects

  3. Seek out only workers who could show that they knew what a blog is (by submitting to some test questions)

  4. Decide how  much I wanted to spend

  5. And turn the problem loose on people around the globe.

You know everyone always fawning over Google. Don't get me wrong, I think Google is great and I've done my own share of fawning.

However, in my book, Amazon is the unsung hero in the new Web 2.0 world. They are every bit as innovative and cool as Google, and they do it while somehow inventorying and delivering gazillions of books and other products around the globe.

Posted on November 27, 2005 and filed under Life, Technology.