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Programming crowds

Christine Daniloff

At the Association for Computing Machinery’s 23rd symposium on User Interface Software and Technology in October, members of the User Interface Design Group at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory walked off with awards for both best paper and best student paper.

Both papers describe software that uses Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service to farm tasks out to human beings sitting at Internet-connected computers. The best-paper prize went to VizWiz, a cell-phone application that enables blind people to snap photographs and, within a minute or so, receive audible descriptions of the objects depicted. The best-student-paper prize went to Soylent, a program that distributes responsibility for editing text to hundreds of people in such a way that highly reliable results can be culled in as little as 20 minutes.

Launched in 2005, Mechanical Turk is an Internet marketplace, where so-called requesters can upload data and offer payment for the completion of simple tasks that computers can't perform reliably. A requester, for instance, might split an audio file into 30-second chunks and offer five cents for the transcription of each one. But Mechanical Turk has a few drawbacks. One is its fairly clunky interface. Others are the difficulty of getting results in real time and of getting reliable results to complex tasks. The MIT researchers’ papers address all three problems.

From MIT News Office
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