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The Mechanical Turk

January 1, 2012

I recently read the wonderful book The Invention of Hugo Cabret with my son.  The story and beautiful illustrations conjure a surreal world in which a central character is a mechanical man.  This automaton draws a wonderful picture that is central to the story.  This reminded me of the most famous automaton in history – The Mechanical Turk.

The Turk was touted as an early robot that could play chess at the highest level. Built in Vienna in 1770 by the inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen, the machine consisted of a large pedestal, housing intricate machinery on top of which stood a chessboard. To this box was attached the upper half of a men dressed in oriental robes and a turban. After a theatrical introduction, the automaton would face a challenger. The Turk would move its pieces by itself, and would instantly recognize illegal moves.

The Turk first dazzled the court of the empress Maria Theresa in Vienna. It offered a surprisingly good game, and soon became a sensation, touring Europe and later North America.  The Turk was matched against some of the best chess players of the time, loosing some games, but winning surprisingly many. It remained popular after its inventor’s death, and it even played against Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin.

The secret of the Mechanical Turk was kept for over 50 years – the machine was an elaborate illusion.  It contained an ingeniously hidden compartment that housed a human operator. This hidden chess master could observe the position on the chessboard above, and manipulate the Turk. The identity of the operator that made the Turk famous is still unknown.

The original Turk was destroyed in a fire, but some of the original parts survived.  It was reconstructed in 1984 – however, at this time a hidden operator was no longer necessary (a nice video of the reconstructed machine is here).  The present incarnation of the Turk is truly autonomous, its moves guided by a chess-playing computer.

Today machines can play chess better than any human. However, there are plenty of things that humans can still do better: accurately transcribing dictations, or predicting which products other people will like.

Interestingly, Amazon has created an online service to easily harness a large human workforce for such tasks.  And they have named this service The Mechanical Turk, after the 18th century automaton.  Businesses can use this slick computer interface behind which are hundreds of humans that actually perform the requested tasks.

The modern chess-playing Turk does not need a human operator.  And this brings us to the interesting question: How long before we can replace the human operators behind Amazon’s Mechanical Turk with machines?  I would like to believe that this will take a very long time. But given the acceleration in innovation that we are experiencing, it may take far less than 200 years.


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  1. I find the book intriguing (though I haven’t read it). Seems rare to find an intelligent treatment of AI in younger children’s literature. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dewan is for younger kids, and it copies the original Disney plot but uses believable robots instead of magic. The rarity of these books for children seems to indicate how unprepared we are for the future of AI. I find that children’s lit tends to reflect the modern consciousness in many ways, and I think the general public has a very poor understanding of AI. I don’t think Kurzweil’s singularity is going to happen very soon, so maybe there’s plenty of time for incremental advances in AI to creep into children’s imaginations. Maybe I’ll read this book when my oldest daughter (currently 7 years) gets a little older. When we read Dewan’s book, the implications of robots building robots seemed just as far beyond many adults’ awareness as it was beyond my 7-year-old’s.

    • josic permalink

      Thanks for pointing out the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. I will check it out. I read Hugo Cabret with my son when he was 7, and I think he got most of it. I am glad I did because now that he is 8 he only wants to read by himself…

      • Ah, a child’s growing independence is an interesting parallel to this thread on automatons. We work to teach our children independence and then find ourselves unprepared when they achieve it. All the things I know I’ll have to let go of, and now it looks like co-reading will be on the list. Thanks for the bittersweet warning.

    • josic permalink

      Just read The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dewan to my younger son tonight. Thanks for the tip Chris – it’s very nicely done.

  2. I’ve always been amazed that there existed this little person that was a chess master. What did he do before the Mechanical Turk? Was he out there playing chess. Was chess just a thing that royals did?

  3. josic permalink

    Carson – is it clear that it was a little person? He or she may have been short. A good point about who played chess at the time. As we discussed before, if it was only played by a small group of affluent people of leisure, then the level at which it was played was likely much lower than today.

  4. The stories I had read always indicated that it was a little person. The box was pretty small and people would be able to examine it and no one found a secret compartment so I presume it was a little person. I have to believe that there weren’t any Emmanuel Lasker’s out there. That would come a century later so they trained this little person to play chess. Probably a year of training would make he/she better than most leisure players.

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