Nothing in computing seems to get folks quite so excited as AI. From cybernetics to super-computers, it’s shiny, it’s expensive (the Japanese Government alone is set to spend $26bn on robotics in the next ten years) and it comes with the added zing of impending apocalypse.
Rise of the Machines
But what if the cutting edge of human-computer interaction was to be found not at NASA or DARPA, but instead via an Australian outsourcing website?
Step forward Freelancer. It has just launched a new API which, it’s claimed, will bring man and machine one step closer.
So what does it do? Well rather than acting as an interface between software, the Freelancer API interfaces with humans. For example, an employer with regular freelancing jobs could instruct the API to automatically post requests, recruit and evaluate workers.
The possibility of computers as bosses has certainly got journalists smelling a story, and there’s no denying that Freelancer CEO Matt Barrie has a flair for publicity. So is 2011 set to be the year computers start filing tax returns?
Looking at the Freelancer API diagram (and who among us can resist a good flow chart?) I don’t think we need to call in Will Smith just yet. Although extremely clever, the API seems primarily designed to relay information between human employers and freelancers, more like a virtual P.A. than a virtual boss.
Do you want an API with that?
So if Freelancer is (or perhaps isn’t) pushing forward the use of APIs in online outsourcing, what about innovation in crowdsourced work? A number of crowdsourcing firms and projects have risen to the challenge, with the trend towards using traditional (software to software) APIs in new ways.
CrowdFlower, a labor-on-demand service with over 500,000 workers, has released an API which lets developers build the CrowdFlower platform into external websites and applications. CrowdFlower also plans to eventually integrate with social networking sites.
In the future you could sign in to Facebook, update your status, and complete a couple of quick tasks. Pay could be in money or in game credits, while tasks you complete would add to your reputation as a digital worker.
Another project trying to get the most out of the crowd is TurKit, an API which interfaces with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. With TurKit you can potentially develop whole software applications based on co-ordinated crowdsourced workers. The possibilities of exploiting ‘human algorithms’ (sounds a bit creepy I know) are pretty much endless.
A student at MIT has already put TurKit in use with Soylent, a ‘word processor with a crowd inside’. The crowd works on demand, proofing, correcting and doing simple edits to documents; just the type of tasks that computers (why hello there MS Word grammar checker) have notoriously failed at.
A brave new crowdsourced future?
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Hollywood version of ‘on demand human computation’ involved a downtrodden, digital-worker underclass, answering to the ruthless demands of an evil API.
In reality the work of CrowdFlower and TurKit points to the possibility of everyone becoming habitual consumers of, and contributors to, crowdsourced applications. You’ll earn credit doing tasks on Facebook, which you can then spend improving a word document or getting your photos tagged. One big, happy, microworking economy.