Being on the bleeding edge of progress means you see new technologies come out all the freaking time. Some of them are truly worthless and can be safely ignored. Most of them will be intriguing but ultimately what you would expect. A very few of them have the potential to surprise the hell out of you and those are the ones worth keeping an eye on.

About 20 years ago, the surprising thing of the day was using commodity hardware to build supercomputers. Before that point, the way to make supercomputers better was to utilize every hertz of processing power through custom hardware and clever software. The revolution of commodity hardware was not in the engineering, it was in the shift in thinking. The new way to solve hard problems was to just design simple, less efficient algorithms and throw more hardware at the problem. That shift changed not only the types of applications that could be built but also the way we think about building apps. The reason Mechanical Turk is worth keeping an eye on is because its about to do something similar for labor.

When Amazon released its iPhone app my entire understanding of what was possible changed. You load up the app, snap a picture of an object, Amazon will use Mechanical Turk to find the closest Amazon equivalent and, within about 5 minutes, you can buy it for one click. The application itself was a beautiful usage of Mechanical Turk but more interesting is how a shift in thinking had to occur before it could even be imagined. That Amazon is releasing this app for free but paying for human labor means  their business model relies on human labor being cheap enough to hide in the margins. At the same time, the user experience is only compelling because the search results come back before you’ve left the store so Amazon needs to assumes the pool of available labor as essentially infinite to deliver that experience.

Once you’re able to get over that hump of believing that human labor can only be an expensive, limited resource, an entire vista of compelling applications open up. Here’s one I came up with today in a conversation with a collegue: Calorie tracking sucks because of the data entry problem. You need to manually enter in every single thing you ate and that requires far more organization than most people have. Why not just snap a photo with your iPhone and let a Mechanical Turker figure out what you ate? How do you solve the reliability problem? Have every picture looked at by at least three Turkers and only accept it if at least two agree. When labor becomes that cheap, its smarter to be dumb and throw more human hardware at the problem.

Does that mean Mechanical Turk will do to human labor what the commodity hardware & cloud computing did to server farms? Of course not, the analogy is instructive, not a direct mapping. What it does mean is that we as a society are going to experience several “everything we knew was wrong” type moments and that the labor market of 2039 will look as different from today as supercomputers did in 1979 and those who are the first to recognise this change will be the ones who have the best chance of exploiting it.