Mathematics in everyday life

The Mechanical Turk


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.