On Writing, Tech, and Other Loquacities

The collected works of Lana Brindley: writer, speaker, blogger

The Mechanical Turk and OSDC

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OSDC 2011 kicked off today at the ANU. I tripped along to the OSIA (Open Source Industry Australia) miniconf, which Red Hat sponsored, and was mightily pleased to hear Stuart Gutherie reference one of my favourite pieces of historical weirdness: the mechanical turk. I couldn’t help but hold forth, and eventually gave an impromptu lightning talk on the subject.

The mechanical turk existed in the late 1700’s, and was billed as an “automaton chess player”. In reality, it was a wooden box in which an accomplished chess player could sit and manipulate the chess board on top, while a wooden “turk” would appear to move the pieces mechanically. It was invented by Wolfgang von Kempelen, a Hungarian, who also invented a “speaking machine”, a speech synthesiser, which was actually quite important to the early development of phonetics as an area of study, but not half as famous as his great hoax, the mechanical turk.

What makes the mechanical turk so interesting is the lengths von Kempelen went to to persuade his audience that the turk was, indeed, an automaton. He would show the audience first one empty cabinet, then another, and then in the third cabinet would be a complicated looking system of levers and pulleys. The cabinet was designed that, throughout this proceeding, the human operator could easily slip from one side to the other on a sliding seat to hide from view.

The trick was not exposed until the mid-1820’s, despite some very public appearances. The mechanical turk won chess games against such prominent figures as Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin before being found out, although no one has recorded the names of those chess players working the turk from underneath.

How this becomes relevant to the IT industry is equally as fascinating as the history of the machine. In the days of the turk, playing chess was something that no machine was capable of doing. It required a level of computation that only humans were capable of achieving. We have now invented computers that can play chess (and even appear on game shows) with ease, but there are still tasks that we can’t replace with a small shell script. Many of these tasks are frustratingly simple, but require a human brain to parse the data. Writing tasks often fit into this category: things like writing short captions for images, changing the style used in a document, or changing text from British English to American English spelling.

Within Red Hat, we spend a lot of our time working on errata text. After a program has been released it is fairly normal to find bugs. When the developers go through and fix a bunch of those bugs, they will send out an update termed an “errata release”. For each bug fixed, the technical writers need to document it, which means writing four sentences: one sentence each about the cause of the bug, the consequence of the bug, the fix that was applied, and the result of the fix. This is, naturally, quite tedious and boring. It’s natural for us to want to automate this process, but unfortunately it’s a job that requires a human brain.

So we did the next best thing: we created a mechanical turk. We call it “The Turkinator”, and it’s currently available for Fedora errata releases. Basically, you choose whether you want to write a Cause, a Consequence, a Fix, or a Result; you’re given a bug to read; you submit your sentence and that’s it. In this way, we automate the task of writing errata text by breaking the big task down into little tiny pieces and asking humans to perform the work of a shell script.

This model has an extra added bonus in the open source space, though, and that is what we like to call “micro-contributions”. Anyone who has contributed — or thought about contributing — to an open source project would understand how daunting that first contribution can be. By creating the possibility of micro-contributions, potential contributors can have their first (and second, and third …) patch completed in under a minute. Instant contributors for the project, and instant contributions for the development team.

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