Know what a CAPTCHA is? I didn’t, or at least I didn’t know that’s what they were called. CAPTCHA stands for “completely automated public Turing tests to tell computers and humans apart.”

What are they?

There those little images that we have to translate into text in order to submit our orders or comment on a blog.


So what do they have to do with harnessing human power? This really interesting Washington Post article describes how the time spent doing that could be spent helping digitize thousands of books that are too difficult to scan using OCR.

Researchers estimate that about 60 million of those nonsensical jumbles are solved everyday around the world, taking an average of about 10 seconds each to decipher and type in.

Instead of wasting time typing in random letters and numbers, Carnegie Mellon researchers have come up with a way for people to type in snippets of books to put their time to good use, confirm they’re not machines and help speed up the process of getting searchable texts online.

“Humanity is wasting 150,000 hours every day on these,” said Luis von Ahn, an assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon. He helped develop the CAPTCHAs about seven years ago.

It’s a pretty phenomenal idea. Use the collective time and minimal effort of EVERYONE to do what otherwise would be a painfully tedious task for many. Is this the future of menial digital labor?

Already we have examples of how machines can work together in bit torrent and massive mathematical calculations (to name a couple). What about using humans the same way?

Concerning those 150,000 hours/per day (!) von Ahn goes on to ask, “Is there any way in which we can use this human time for something good for humanity, do 10 seconds of useful work for humanity?”

Von Ahn is working with the Internet Archive, which runs several book-scanning projects, to use CAPTCHAs for this instead. Internet Archive scans 12,000 books a month and sends von Ahn hundreds of thousands of files that are images that the computer doesn’t recognize. Those files are downloaded onto von Ahn’s server and split up into single words that can be used as CAPTCHAs at sites all over the Internet.

If enough users decipher the CAPTCHAs in the same way, the computer will recognize that as the correct answer.

How cool is this? I love that smart people are thinking about stuff like this. The plan would be to replace current CAPTCHAs with images from books that need digitizing. The name of the project…reCAPTCHA. That’s good.

Let’s share this idea with kids and teachers. Get them thinking about the power of so many people doing little things. Get them to see how collectively we can do so much. And then get them thinking about the possibilities of collective human intelligence for solving world problems.

Now that’s “harnessing human power in exactly the right way.”

2 Responses to “Harnessing Human Power the Right Way”
  1. Jason W says:

    Ironically, I just had to type “gidday” into a little box in order to post a comment here. My question is, doesn’t the website have to know the correct letters you’re typing in before you type them in? Otherwise, what good is typing them in as a security measure if the site does not already know what letters are in the box? Why couldn’t you just type in anything? Interesting idea though, 150,000 hours of time wasted, reminds me of my first two years of college!

  2. dharter says:

    I am guessing that it bases whether you get through on what other people have said…perhaps at the start, you could type anything, which would allow spamming for a short time, but very quickly, that CAPTCHA would be set, since most would do it properly.

    I think it’s simply the sheer volume of people who do these things that will get it to work quickly.

    See you in Shanghai!

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