You're typing a story, you push the Publish button, and your story is available worldwide. Or you compose a message, hit the Send key, and your e-mail is going to the other end of the world.
So you think you're mastering your computer? And if it was the other way around? Clive Thompson tells us a strange story in Wired Magazine.
Last year, Yahoo! wanted to block porn spambots from obtaining free email accounts. It created a brilliant but simple reverse Turing test: To get an account, you have to identify a randomly generated word thatís been slightly stretched and distorted. This proves youíre a human, not a robot. Machines are terrible at visual recognition tasks -- sure enough, the "picture test" blocked out the spambots.
Wait, this is not the end yet.
Some purveyors of porn developed a way to fight back. They rewrote the spambot code so that when the bots reach the visual recognition test, a human steps in to help out. The bots route the picture to a person whoís agreed to sit at a computer and identify these images. Often, insiders say, itís a hormonal teen whoís doing it in exchange for free porn. The kid identifies the picture, the spambot takes the answer, and-- bingo -- itís able to log in.
Now consider how deeply strange this is. Instead of a machine augmenting human ability, itís a human augmenting machine ability. In a system like this, humans are valuable for the specific bit of processing power we provide: visual recognition. We are acting as a kind of coprocessor in much the same way a graphics chip works with a main Pentium processor -- itís a manservant lurking in the background, rendering the pretty pictures onscreen so the Pentium can attend to more pressing tasks.
Clive Thompson also looks at similar situations. For instance, in some call centers, speech recognition systems can handle 95% of the tasks, leaving the last 5% to human operators. And these poor people only deal all day long with the angry or irrational customers that the automated system cannot satisfy.
Here is the conclusion.
Welcome to your future: as a USB plug-in for your computer. Itís a dirty job, but somebodyís got to do it.
Source: Clive Thompson, Wired 10.10, October 2002
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