10 Modern ‘Mechanical Turks’: When Automation Is Just Humans in Disguise

A young boy in England operating a thread-making machine in 1909.

A young boy in England operating a thread-making machine in 1909.
Photo: Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive (Getty Images)

Amazon’s grocery stores ditched their “Just Walk Out” technology on Tuesday, though it turned out the automated checkout system included 1,000 reviewers in India. However, this is hardly the only example of times when automation breakthroughs were truly powered by human workers in hiding – a phenomenon known as “The Mechanical Turk.”

The Mechanical Turk refers to a fraudulent chess-playing machine from the year 1770. It appeared to be an automated machine that could play a competitive chess match against any human. The machine was touted around the world for decades, amazing crowds as the first-ever automaton. However, it was later revealed to be an elaborate hoax, where a master chess player was hiding inside the machine.

Courtney Milan

Courtney Milan writes books about carriages, corsets, and smartwatches. Her books have received starred reviews in Publishers WeeklyLibrary Journal, and Booklist. She is a New York Times and a USA Today Bestseller.

Courtney pens a weekly newsletter about tea, books, and basically anything and everything else.

Before she started writing romance, Courtney got a graduate degree in theoretical physical chemistry from UC Berkeley. After that, just to shake things up, she went to law school at the University of Michigan and graduated summa cum laude. Then she did a handful of clerkships. She was a law professor for a while. She now writes full-time.

Courtney is represented by Kristin Nelson of the Nelson Literary Agency.

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