Join the search for Steve Fossett

Steve Fossett, adventurer and record-setter extraordinaire in the world of balloons, aeroplanes, boats etc. al sadly went missing early last week. Last seen taking off on what would be expected to be a nice easy little jaunt for him, he has at this point not returned.

As might be expected, a stack of search-planes et al. are out looking for him, but even if you don't have a pilots license, any money, or anything other than a connection to t'internet you can help the effort.

Amazon, yep, the one famous for selling books, also have a website called "Mechanical Turk", named after Wolfgang von Kempelen's 18th century chess-playing machine. The chess-playing Turk - a model of a human sitting down at a desk complete with chessboard - baffled and amazed many people at the time via soundly whipping many a human opponent. When opened, the box beneath it appeared to contain just cogwheels and other 18th-century tech looking things. In the end though it was revealed that its powers came less from clockwork-checkmate affinity than from a secretly concealed real human cunningly hidden within the fake machinery. Behind the scenes, a human was doing a task that to the outer world it appeared a machine was miraculously doing.

The same goes for the Amazon Mechanical Turk, albeit brought up to 21st century geek-goodness. Yep, believe it or not, there are still tasks computers find it hard to do alone. Not playing chess, but more things like recognising things in pictures, translating speech to text, and choosing the prettiest photograph of someone. Amazon's Mechanical Turk provides an API that allows people's computer programs to use this sort of data by using third-party human intelligence. Here's some pseudo-code from their FAQ to show the concept from the programmer's point of view, presumably for an application that needs to be able to decide whether a photograph has a human in it or not.

read (photo);
photoContainsHuman = callMechanicalTurk(photo);
if (photoContainsHuman == TRUE) {
else {

It looks like standard code calling various methods, but in reality the results of callMechanicalTurk() are provided by an assortment of random real people who have signed up to do your Human Intelligence Task (HIT).

People are incentivised to do this sort of work by Amazon via payments per task completed. Pretty much any adult is welcome to take part by choosing an assignment from the HIT page. However judging by the first few in the list it's not going to make you rich. At first sight it looks like you will generally earn substantially less than minimum wage unless you work super, super fast.

Example of what to search forExample of what to search forAnyhow, how does this relate to poor Steve Fossett? Well, should you choose that mission in Mechanical Turk you will be presented with slides of satellite imagery. The idea is that you examine them for something resembling his plane. Any bits of imagery that you and others tag as containing something that is potentially relevant are sent to specialists who will look into it further, and then hopefully provide a location for investigators to concentrate on in the real world.

Clearly this is a charitable effort so no payment is yours, but it's hardly an arduous task and could possibly help the rescue effort find him.

As Dizzy points out, this technique has been used once before to locate the missing-at-sea computer scientist Jim Gray. Unfortunately that time nothing useful was really found; hopefully this time will be different.


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