Thursday, May 21, 2009

Nerd Word of the Day: Mechanical Turk

Alan Turing MemorialImage by Bernt Rostad via Flickr

Mechanical Turk (n.) - A geek term for any "fake" artificial intelligence, as in an intellect that is presented as artificial but is in fact operated by a human being, or other conventional intelligence. Anyone or anything that cheats on the Turing Test is a Mechnical Turk. The term is a reference for "The Turk," a chess-playing robot that was exhibited in Europe for over 80 years starting in the 1770s--defeating both Ben Franklin and Napolean--until it was revealed to be operated by a human chessmaster hiding inside. In some tech circles, the term Mechanical Turk refers specifically to a service offered by, which quickly answers user information requests by routing them to human researchers.

I bring it up because: Terminator: Salvation opens today, and that's always a good excuse to discuss artificial intelligence, especially those that are clearly fake. More appropriately, a prototype artificial intelligence that precedes SkyNet in The Sarah Connor Chronicles was called The Turk, referencing the same 18th-century hoax chess-bot. Above all, concepts like the Mechanical Turk are abuzz in AI circles and tech message boards thanks to Wolfram Alpha, a so-called "computational engine" that seeks to analyze text questions and research its own answers to them, effectively automating the human process that is at the heart of Amazon's Mechanical Turk. So far, the Amazon fleshlings are much more effective than the Wolfram proto-AI--which means the deathbot rebellion isn't likely this week, no matter how much McG's new Terminator flick may scare you into thinking so.

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