Mechanical Turk, named after an 18th-century automaton that supposedly played chess but actually concealed a human chess master, is at the forefront of this trend. The idea is simple: somebody with a job to be done, such as transcribing a podcast or proofreading a contract, enters the details into a Web page at Amazon (to do this, however, a person needs technical savvy or the help of a Web developer). Mechanical Turk outsources these so-called human intelligence tasks (HITs) to willing workers across the Internet, who earn a small fee for each one they complete.
HITs can be both boring and touchingly human. (A Pasadena family whose Yorkie had been abducted offered workers $0.10 for every time they posted notes about it on forums, message boards, or MySpace pages.) The search for Jim Gray, however, points toward a significant role for the technology in the future. Imagine armies of PC owners reviewing airport security videos from around the country for the face of a single wanted fugitive, or scrutinizing telescope images for signs of dangerous new near-Earth asteroids. The Web provides tools for interaction that are turning people’s pattern recognition skills into a valuable commodity.
The “people-powered search” company ChaCha is another case in point. Since last fall, the company has recruited 30,000 live “guides”: mostly retirees, college students, and work-at-home moms who labor at their leisure, spending as little or as much time as they like sharing their expertise on the best Web resources in various topic areas. (Guides, who must be invited to join ChaCha by other guides, can earn $5 to $10 per search hour.) The free search service begins with a text box for searching ChaCha’s traditional Web index. If a regular search doesn’t turn up satisfactory results, a user can click a link labeled “Chat Live with a Guide,” which sends the visitor’s query to the appropriate human. Once paired with a guide, the visitor receives instant messages containing greetings and, sometimes, requests for clarification. The guide then selects five or ten promising links on the subject and sends them back to the user’s screen, along with the same keyword-related ads that show up beside instant search results and are the company’s main revenue source. The results are also added to the ChaCha Web index, which consequently grows in quality over time.
A few dot-com-era companies, such as Webhelp.com, tried to market human-assisted search services and failed. But in the era of MySpace, YouTube, Skype, and instant messaging via phone and PC, people are more ready for the concept of working with a live person online; in fact, they’re thirsty for a little human interaction and human wisdom on the Web, at least in the eyes of Brad Bostic, ChaCha’s president and chief operating officer. “It’s both technology and culture that are changing,” Bostic told me. “A few short years ago, e-mail was the standard mechanism for interacting over the Internet. Now people turn to instant messaging and other outlets, not only to gain information but to gain social fulfillment.”