Amazon.com recently launched Mechanical Turk, a service named after the 18th-Century chess-playing "automaton." Turk solves a perennial problem: Computers are inadequate for many tasks--tasks that human beings are often quite good at. Billed as "artificial, artificial intelligence," the Turk is a system that allows programs to "invoke" Turk participants for any data-based task that can be done by an untrained human being. For example, given a picture of a landscape, a Turk participant might click "Yes" if there's a person in it and "No" otherwise. This sort of photograph interpretation is trivial for a person--but still impossible for computers. Amazon.com publishes an API with which to invoke Turk participants' services. (Come to think of it, geeks have long wished that human beings had an API.)
Mechanical Turk reminds me of the companies that paid you for watching advertisements (none of those companies, to my knowledge, survived the dot-com pop). The problem was that people willing to watch advertisements for money were not exactly a high-value demographic (duh). Mechanical Turk doesn't suffer from this problem: It only wants your brain, not your wallet, so it doesn't matter how poor you are. (Indeed, given the value of a dollar in poorer countries, Turk's most ardent participants will probably be in developing nations. Three cheers for a system that pushes wealth down the income ladder.) One potential problem (at least in the United States) is that piecework (which is effectively what Turk offers) is legal only if the effective wage equals (or exceeds) the minimum wage. But net, I think it's a good idea. In fact, from now on, I may get a Turk to blog for me.