the mechanical Turk
Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 19, 2009
I’ve been on an Ottoman kick recently, as you may have noticed. One of my more recent Ottoman jags started with a magazine’s casual reference to Amazon’s work-for-hire service, “Mechanical Turk“. The site, whose motto is “Artificial Artificial Intelligence”, connects employers and independent contractors willing to do online tasks that require human, rather than machine, intelligence for piecework rates.
Amazon’s enterprise is always interesting, but what made me curious was the name. What is a mechanical Turk, and why is it Turkish?
Since I was on Amazon’s website anyway, I turned to its book offerings, and found:
It turns out that the “mechanical Turk” was a machine designed by an Austrian tinkerer and scientist in the late 1700s – a time when machines that could simulate some aspect of animal or human life were apparently all the rage at Europe’s courts. On the more charming side was a torso of a boy playing the flute, whose wind-up gears actually produced a flute-like sound. On the less charming side was a replica of a duck, whose primary enchantment was that when fed, his wind-up gears took the food through the process of digestion, including the excretions at the end. Ugh.
The mechanical Turk was something else – more impressive than any other machine of its day, because it seemed to be able to think. The machine (see image on the book cover above) was a large contraption: a semi-solid table, which housed the machine’s gears, and the figure of an Ottoman Turk. What the machine did was to play chess.
I’m not much of a chess player, but apparently the ability to play chess is one litmus test for machine intelligence, because chess requires strategic thinking. In other words, the mechanical Turk seemed to possess artificial intelligence.
What we know now – and what Amazon’s Mechanical Turk plays with – is that the machine’s gears were just for show. A person hid inside the box and manipulated the Ottoman Turk’s arm to make each chess move – meaning that this artificial intelligence was really human intelligence supported by artifice.
I don’t have anything insightful to say about the science side of this story, and I’m not too impressed by the mechanical Turk’s creator. Why didn’t he put his skills to work designing a machine that did work, even if it couldn’t play chess? I found myself wondering as I read the book.
Maybe that question shows my own lack of imagination – or my own hidebound morality. In any case, what really interests me is why he decided to make the figure Turkish – why not dress him as a fellow Austrian, or even another European?
I think I know the answer: the Ottoman Empire was Austria’s historic rival. An Ottoman Turk must have appeared a much more intimidating competitor than a Frenchman, or even a British subject. From the descriptions that cropped up in the book, however, it also made him seem much more alien – and maybe a bit sinister.
Here is one example:
An article [published in 1820] in the [London-based] New Monthly Magazine … proclaimed that “this cunning infidel (for he assumes the figure of a Turk) drives kings, and castles, and knights before him with more than moral sagacity, and with his inferior hand; and, except in a very few instances of drawn games, has beaten the most skillful chess-players in Europe.” (p. 128)
Ah, infidel – one of my favorite, we’re-all-cousins-under-Abraham, words.
Here is another, taken from the mechanical Turk’s tour of Philadelphia, Boston, and New York in the 1830s:
Silas Weir Mitchell, a Philadelphia doctor who attended Maelzel’s show as a child, later recallted that “the Turk, with his oriental silence and rolling eyes, would haunt your nightly visions for many an evening thereafter.” (p. 172)
Glad to see that we Americans were so free of stereotypes. If the figure had been dressed as an Austrian, would Dr. Mitchell have referred to his “Tyrolean silence”, do you think?