“Normally, a human makes a request of a computer, and the computer does the computation of the task,” he said. “But artificial artificial intelligences like Mechanical Turk invert all that. The computer has a task that is easy for a human but extraordinarily hard for the computer. So instead of calling a computer service to perform the function, it calls a human.”
...The company opened Mechanical Turk as a public site in November 2005. Today, there are more than 100,000 “Turk Workers” in more than 100 countries who earn micropayments in exchange for completing a wide range of quick tasks called HITs, for human intelligence tasks, for various companies.
The Times writer Jason Pontin (who is also editor and publisher of MIT's Technology Review), gives Turk working a try, and finds it disorienting:
What is it like to be an individual component of these digital, collective minds?
To find out, I experimented. After registering at www.mturk.com, I was confronted with a table of HITs that I could perform, together with the price that I would be paid. I first accepted a job from ContentSpooling.net that asked me to write three titles for an article about annuities and their use in retirement planning. Then I viewed a series of images apparently captured from a vehicle moving through the gray suburbs of North London, and, at the request of Geospatial Vision, a division of the British technology company Oxford Metrics Group, identified objects like road signs and markings.
For all this, my Amazon account was credited the lordly sum of 12 cents. The entire experience lasted no more than 15 minutes, and from my point of view, as an occluded part of the hive-mind, it made no sense at all.
This is reminiscent of philospher John Searle's thought experiment called the Chinese Room, in which he posits a large team of humans implementing an algorithm that translates Chinese to English. Since each human performs only a small task (e.g., sorting acording to a rule set), none have any understanding of the overall process. Searle asks where, exactly, does the understanding of Chinese and English reside in this device? Searle considered his thought experiment as evidence against strong AI, whereas I just consider Searle to be confused. It's obvious that a Turk worker might be a small cog in some larger process that "understands" the world and processes information in a useful way. This depends not at all on what the little cog understands or does not understand.