When AI needs a human assistant

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For years, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (mTurk) has been a kind of open secret in the tech world, a place where fledgling algorithms can hire human labor on the cheap. If you need a hundred people to trace the boundaries of an object or fill out a survey, it’s the single best place to make it happen.

But while the project itself is well-known, it’s always slightly embarrassing when a company turns up there. In 2017, Expensify was spotted asking mTurk workers to enter data from receipts, leading the company to rush out a statement insisting that the mTurk project had nothing to do with Expensify’s main app. In part, it was a privacy issue, but mostly it was embarrassing: Expensify was built on a simple piece of technology — the ability to…

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