Why The “Descriptive Camera” Gives Me The Creeps

Why The “Descriptive Camera” Gives Me The Creeps

Everyone seems to be talking about the descriptive camera at the moment. If you haven’t heard about it yet, click the link. Basically, it’s a camera connected to a printer. Only, the printer doesn’t output an image but a description of what’s in the image.

In short: If you make a photo of an apple on a chair the printer will print: “looks like there’s an apple (past expiry date) on a dented Ikea chair.”

If it feels like there’s a pixie sitting inside the mechanism, carefully describing the picture, it’s because there is one! Or, to be more precise, hundreds and thousands of them:

The technology at the core of the Descriptive Camera is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk API. It allows a developer to submit Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs) for workers on the internet to complete. The developer sets the guidelines for each task and designs the interface for the worker to submit their results. The developer also sets the price they’re willing to pay for the successful completion of each task. An approval and reputation system ensures that workers are incented to deliver acceptable results.

By the way, if you’re wondering about the name:

The name Mechanical Turk comes from “The Turk,” a chess-playing automaton of the 18th century, which was made by Wolfgang von Kempelen. It toured Europe, beating the likes of Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin. It was later revealed that this “machine” was not an automaton at all, but was in fact a chess master hidden in a special compartment controlling its operations.(wiki)

It’s exactly that moment of surprise which makes the descriptive camera so eerie. Usually, machines and gadgets in our life pretend to be human (“talking” friendly, reacting with soothing sounds and colorful graphics), but in this case we are dealing with humans pretending to be machines.

Imagine each time you google something, it’s not being parsed by an algorithm but actually gets sent to a Chinese work camp where millions of “click workers” then pore over your query.

Once this technology becomes more wide-spread how can we be sure that when we click  a button in a software, it doesn’t have direct effects on the lives of human beings somewhere around the planet?

Maybe even the PHP code which makes this article possible is not really a software, but instead once I hit publish an army of college dropouts working at 0.01 cent per hour cobble together the raw HTML? Can we really be sure?

It reminds me of that Monkey Dust episode: