The notion that web services is all about automating machine-to-machine interactions and nothing to do with people is at last conclusively blown out of the water by Amazon Web Services' latest offering, the Amazon Mechanical Turk:
"Developers use the Amazon Mechanical Turk web services API to submit tasks to the Amazon Mechanical Turk web site, approve completed tasks, and incorporate the answers into their software applications. To the application, the transaction looks very much like any remote procedure call: the application sends the request, and the service returns the results. In reality, a network of humans fuels this artificial, artificial intelligence by coming to the web site, searching for and completing tasks, and receiving payment for their work."
This all sounds like some kind of elaborate practical joke, but apparently it's not. By providing programmatic access to real people — 'wetware' — the Amazon Mechanical Turk service solves a very real problem for software developers:
"Humans are much more effective than computers at solving some types of problems, like finding specific objects in pictures, evaluating beauty, or translating text. The idea of the Amazon Mechanical Turk web service is to give developers a programmable interface to a network of humans to solve these kinds of problems and incorporate this human intelligence into their applications.
"For businesses and entrepreneurs who want tasks completed, the Amazon Mechanical Turk web service solves the problem of getting work done in a cost-effective manner by people who have the skill to do the work. It does this by accessing a vast network of human intelligence with the efficiencies and cost-effectiveness of computers."
Anyone aged 18 or older with an Amazon.com account can perform these tasks, providing they meet the qualifications specified by the requester of a HIT (Human Intelligence Task). The qualifications can include custom tests created by the requester as well as the person's prior track record in successfully completing HITs. Payment is processed once the HIT requester has approved a completed HIT.
Unsurprisingly, the service is currently in beta. I can imagine there are some kinks that need to be ironed out before it works well, especially around issues such as trust, qualifications testing, pricing and the approvals process.
The reason it's so difficult to believe it's for real is that there's a sense in which it's an extreme parody of the modern, computerized world of work. For what is any enterprise today if not an elaborate mechanical turk system where people sit at web terminals and provide the decisions that computer programs need to complete their tasks? Taken to its extreme, the Amazon Mechanical Turk could eliminate every clerical and managerial position in corporate America and instead hook those computer programs into its network of suitably qualified casual part-timers working from home or wherever else they're able to log on.
You have to take your hat off to Amazon.com's ingenuity. While all its competitors obsess about monetizing search, or content, or applications, or trading platforms, Amazon has gone straight for the jugular and found a radical new way of monetizing labor. Now that's innovative.