Most of you may know amazon.com merely as a company that sells books, CDs, DVDs and pretty much everything else under the sun. But amazon has also become an important player in the market for web services, selling its vast expertise in massively distributed web and database hosting. One of these webservices, Mechanical Turk, however, is a bit different. Mechanical Turk can be used to find real people to perform tasks that are cognitively very simple, often even mindless, but have so far resisted attempts to solve them via artificial intelligence. This includes choosing between alternative photographs, tagging photos with keywords, text recognition and similar things. Amazon has cleverly called it artificial artificial intelligence. Anyone can submit such tasks to Mechanical Turk for a small fee and anyone can in turn sign up with Mechanical Turk and get paid a few pennies per solved task.
Instead of its original purpose, Joshua Schachter is instead using Mechanical Turk as a platform to conduct behavioral economic experiments, paying only a fraction of what such experiments usually cost and waiting only hours instead of weeks to get results back.
He only uses the system to reveal utility functions, but I’m sure it could be coaxed into conducting much more interesting experiments. And all without the biases that you get from using economics and business students who have usually been drilled in game theory before they take part in these experiments and tend to act more selfish than members of the general population.