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 

The people behind the AI Curtain

“So much of what passes for automation isn’t really automation,” says writer and documentarian Astra Taylor. She describes a moment when she was waiting to pick up her lunch at a cafe, and another customer walked in, awestruck, wondering aloud how the app knew that his order was ready 20 minutes early. The woman behind the counter just looked at him and said, “I just sent you a message.”

“He was so convinced that it was a robot,” Taylor says. “He couldn’t see the human labor right in front of his eyes.”

She calls this process fauxtomation: “Fauxtomation renders invisible human labor to make computers seem smarter than they are.”

“AI” usually relies on a lot of low-paid human labor.

Katharine Manning Schwab writing in Fast Company