Excerpt: ‘Humans pretending to be computers pretending to be humans’, by Oscar Schwartz


Image by Wolfgang von Kempelen - Copper engraving from Freiherr Joseph Friedrich zu Racknitz, Ueber den Schachspieler des Herrn von Kempelen, 1789. Licensed under Public Domain

In 1770, Wolfgang von Kempelen stood in front of Empress Maria Theresa at her court in Vienna and proclaimed to have built a mechanical man that could beat humans at chess. The mechanical man – or ‘the Turk’, as von Kempelen named him – was life-sized, carved from maple-wood, dressed in ornate robes and a turban, and sat behind a large cabinet on top of which was a chess set. Von Kempelen opened the cabinet to reveal a labyrinth of levers, cogs and clockwork machinery. He then closed the cabinet, inserted a large key, wound it up, and after some ticking and whirring the Turk lifted its head, studied the board, took hold of a white pawn and moved it forward two places. News of the Turk spread, and chess masters from across the empire travelled for their opportunity to play the machine; they usually returned home defeated. For the next few decades the Turk toured Europe and America, trouncing some of the most formidable minds of the time – Catherine the Great, Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon. Legend has it that Napoleon tested the Turk by making illegal moves, but the Turk grew fed up, and swiped the board.

The Turk’s success evoked varied responses. While some conceded that humans had actually been surpassed by machines, there were a host of counter theories. One was that the Turk was controlled via magnets from a distance. Others believed that it was operated by a spirit held captive in the machine. A young Edgar Allan Poe, who was obsessed with the machine, suggested that the Turk was a hoax, a brilliantly constructed diversion machine that was controlled by a human hiding in the cabinet. Poe was right. The cabinet on which the Turk sat was constructed to conceal a person, and most of the gears and levers were for show. When the cabinet was open, the human would shuffle quietly among them to avoid detection.

History has made the Turk into a star, whereas the person inside is a ghost in the machine.

This story, with its cast of famous characters, provides an almost mythological dawn for the age of Artificial Intelligence, signifying some of the radical adjustments human consciousness has had to make in coming to terms with the fact that intelligence might not be what makes us unique. But when the story is retold, there is a certain character that always remains invisible and voiceless. No one ever talks about the person sitting inside the cabinet controlling the Turk, scurrying among the levers and clogs to avoid detection. The Turk was essentially just an elaborate puppet, and all of its many great achievements were thanks to a real human hiding inside. History has made the Turk into a star, whereas the person inside is a ghost in the machine. We are willing to ignore the human for the romance of a thinking machine.

My name is Beverly and my day started out at 8:45 AM. I hadn’t slept well, and had a late night. I had a lot on my mind from this past week and I was feeling very tired and down, right from the start. I came out into my kitchen (I live in a small two bedroom apartment with my husband and two cats) and decided it was time to make breakfast… I couldn’t decide what I wanted because I was too focused on talking myself out of crawling back into bed. It was probably 9am when I said to myself “I NEED coffee.” Once I had the coffee water boiling I prepped my French press for the job, 2 tablespoons of 8 O'clock original roast coffee. Once that was steeping, I decided to grab a package of pop-tarts to eat for breakfast while I began my day working on the computer. At this point I realised that my husband (Daryl) was already awake and watching TV in the living room, he had the day off of work and I had completely forgot. I went in to greet him and say good morning. It was at this point probably 9:15 AM. After we had our normal “good morning, what are your plans for the day” conversation I finally went and poured my coffee and sat down at the computer to begin my work on Amazon Mechanical Turk.

My name is not actually Beverly. I didn’t wake up at 8.45am, or eat pop tarts for breakfast, and I don’t have a husband called Daryl. These experiences belong to someone else. But I did pay for them using Amazon Mechanical Turk – $5 to be precise – and now, in a way, I own them. Amazon Mechanical Turk, or mTurk for short, is a service offered by Amazon that promises a scalable, on-demand workforce for menial, computer-based work that requires human intelligence. This workforce is not made up of Amazon employees, but an internationally dispersed and anonymous group of workers who sign up to mTurk and complete tasks, which usually require no specific skill or training, for small sums of money. mTurk advertises itself as “artificial artificial intelligence.” The tasks that the human workforce complete are rote and repetitive – like transcribing audio or captioning photos – but which computers still find challenging.

Those who use mTurk can be divided in two groups: Requesters, who outsource work; and Workers (affectionately known as Turkers) who complete the tasks that the Requesters set. A Requester logs into mTurk and creates what is called a HIT (Human Intelligence Task). For example, a Requester might put out a HIT asking for Workers to read a receipt, extract all of the purchased items and their price, and then calculate the total. Often, the Requester will put out tens of thousands of these HITS at one time, and pay around 10 cents or so for the completion of each one. If a Worker wants to complete this request, they accept the HIT, read the receipt, total the price, and then send the data back to the Requester.

Earlier this year I became a Requester on mTurk.

Earlier this year I became a Requester on mTurk. The first and only HIT I made was as follows: “Please send me a minimum 2000 word journal entry about your day. Please provide as many concrete details as possible without providing any information that would give up your identity. Please use fake names.” I set the price at $5, an expiry time of twenty-four hours, and total budget of $35, meaning that after the first seven Turkers submitted, the HIT would terminate. I filled this quota within the first four hours of posting the HIT. That evening I sat in my room and read through the private thoughts and private conversations of seven people I had never met. The strangest thing was that this whole process was mediated entirely via the Amazon webpage. There was no personal interaction required between me as Requester and them as Workers. In fact, it feels like the site is set up to discourage any type of personal communication, as the Worker is presented to the Requester not by names, but as serial numbers. If you’re requesting large scale, impersonalised work – like totalling purchased items on a receipt – the effect of this computer-mediated service is to make the interaction appear not between a human and a human, but a human and software, as if it’s just a matter of executing a program. Like the chess playing mechanical Turk of the eighteenth century, mTurk is designed to make the human behind the machine invisible.

This is an excerpt from the winning piece of The Lifted Brow Experimental Non-fiction Prize, 2015. It appears in full in The Lifted Brow #25: The Relaunch Issue. Get your copy now.

Oscar Schwartz is a writer from Melbourne. He is currently writing a PhD on whether computers can write literature. He tweets at @scarschwartz.