The people inside the machine

In 1770 a chess-playing robot, built by a Hungarian inventor, caused a sensation across Europe. The Mechanical Turk was capable of beating even the best players at chess. 

It eventually transpired that there was a human chess player cleverly concealed in its innards. The apparently intelligent machine depended on a person hidden inside. 

It turns out that something very similar is happening today. Just like the Turk, modern artificial-intelligence (AI) systems rely on help from unseen humans. 

Pretty much everything you do online creates a trail of data that can be used for making systems smarter. As Google, Facebook and others operate their enormous smart machines, we are all helping to power them. A clockwork chess robot from the 1770s thus foreshadowed both the modern debate about artificial intelligence – and a key aspect of making the technology work. The internet is a giant Mechanical Turk: whether we know it or not, we have all become the people inside the machine

Tom Standage writing in 1843 Magazine