The Wall Street Journal’s Venture Capital Dispatch reports on how Aardvark, the social question asking and answering service recently acquired by Google, used a Wizard of Oz prototype to learn about how their service concept would work without building all the tech before knowing if it was any good.
Aardvark employees would get the questions from beta test users and route them to users who were online and would have the answer to the question. This was done to test out the concept before the company spent the time and money to build it, said Damon Horowitz, co-founder of Aardvark, who spoke at Startup Lessons Learned, a conference in San Francisco on Friday.
“If people like this in super crappy form, then this is worth building, because they’ll like it even more,” Horowitz said of their initial idea.
At the same time it was testing a “fake” product powered by humans, the company started building the automated product to replace humans. While it used humans “behind the curtain,” it gained the benefit of learning from all the questions, including how to route the questions and the entire process with users.
This is a really good idea, as I’ve argued before on this blog and in a chapter for developers of mobile health interventions. What better way to (a) learn about how people will use and experience your service and (b) get training data for your machine learning system than to have humans-in-the-loop run the service?
My friend Chris Streeter wondered whether this was all done by Aardvark employees or whether workers on Amazon Mechanical Turk may have also been involved, especially in identifying the expertise of the early users of the service so that the employees could route the questions to the right place. I think this highlights how different parts of a service can draw on human and non-human intelligence in a variety of ways — via a micro-labor market, using skilled employees who will gain hands-on experience with customers, etc.
I also wonder what UIs the humans-in-the-loop used to accomplish this. It’d be great to get a peak. I’d expect that these were certainly rough around the edges, as was the Aardvark customer-facing UI.
Aardvark does a good job of being a quite sociable agent (e.g., when using it via instant messaging) that also gets out of the way of the human–human interaction between question askers and answers. I wonder how the language used by humans to coordinate and hand-off questions may have played into creating a positive para-social interaction with vark.
Is this etching a self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci created hundreds of years ago? That’s what I was told by a Californian friend who had “gone native” in Florence. Another matter: is this, in fact, a commonly believed and shared legend, and what other variations are there on it?
I shared the story with some fellow visitors in Florence on a lunch-time return to the piazza. Ed Chi tried to verify the rumor using a Web search, but with no success. At least in English, there didn’t seem to be much on this in the Web. (See my photo and comments on Flickr.)
I posted the photo on Flickr. I asked questions on LinkedIn and Yahoo! Answers, with no success. I also asked for help from workers on Mechanical Turk. Here’s part of how I asked for help:
There is a portrait etched in stone on the wall of Palazzo Vecchio in Piazza della Signoria in Florence (Firenza), Italy. It is close behind the copy of the David there. I have heard that there is a legend that this is a self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci. I am looking for any information about this legend, alternate versions of the legend, or information about the real source of the portrait.
What results have been offered seem to suggest that this legend exists — though perhaps it is “actually” (at least as captured online, since perhaps the Leonardo theorists aren’t as active digital content creators) about Michelangelo:
- Palazzo Vecchio in Italian Wikipedia
- Florentine Legends: Fact or Fiction (in Italian)
- Curiosities in Florence
The best way of finding out seemed to actually be my Flickr photo itself, since that’s where Daniel Witting provided the first two links above — however, this was a few months after the photo was first posted to Flickr. Turkers provided a couple useful links also (“Curiosities” above) on a shorter schedule and with a higher price. (I should have also tried uClue — where many former Google Answers researchers now work. This was recommended by Max Harper, who has studied Q&A sites in detail.)
Question and answer services along the lines of Yahoo! Answers rose to global (and U.S.) significance only after success in Korea, where Naver Knowledge iN pioneered the use of an online community to power a Q&A site. A major motivation Korea was the limited amount of Korean content online. With Naver’s offering, Korea’s Internet saavy, English population made information newly available in Korean (and did plenty of other interesting work).
This is as significant a motivation for Q&A sites by English-speaking folks in the U.S., but the present case is an exception.
Some of the questions that made this case interesting to me:
- What culturally-shared beliefs get manifest online? During this whole process, I and others wondered whether perhaps this local legend was only shared orally. It seems that it is represented online after all — at least the Michelangelo variant, but it could have been otherwise.
- How does the pair of languages a task requires knowledge of determine the processes, structres, and communities that are optimal for completing the task? For example, it seems quite important whether the target or source language has many more speakers than the other. (One could think about this simplistically in terms of conditional probabilities of skills with language A given skill with language B and vice verse.)