Helping Out

The Internet is basically a simple idea: let computers talk to each other. I think one of the most interesting things about this is how it has enabled people to do things that were basically impossible before we connected computers together. There are several  examples that i think are really interesting, but here is one that you have probably seen before, but you might not know about: the reCAPTCHA.

You have seen this before…it’s the challenge that web sites give you to type in some words to make sure your not a computer trying to spam or open fake accounts. But a particular implementation of it (the one called reCAPTCHA) looks like this:


This variation is unique from a lot of others. Each of the words you have to type in are pictures of scans from old texts (like old editions of The New York Times for example). Basically the pages have been scanned and a computer program is trying to figure out what all the words are so it can be stored, searched, etc. The problem is that sometimes the computer can’t read the words. People however are a lot better at figuring out what hard to read words are then computers. Enter the reCAPTCHA.  Of the two words in the reCAPTCHA the computer only knows one, that is the one it is using to make sure you are really a person. It does not know the second word, but when you type it in it stores you answer in a database, after time lots of people have answered that word and the program can know with certainty what the word is (you can test this, go to a site with a reCAPTCHA and try and guess which word the computer does not know, (its usually the one that is hard to read), and type it in wrong. Type the other one in right and it will still let you by. Of course, you are adding bad data to the database…so be sure and feel guilty). There is more info about this here.

I think this is interesting for several reasons. First, before the Internet the only way to do something like this was to pay people or find volunteers to do it manually. Which would work, but would be expensive and time consuming. But by using the network you can get a lot of people involved and make it more efficient. The second thing that is interesting is that it makes a task serve double duty without adding any burden. If a site needs to challenge a user to see if they are human having them type jumbled text is a good way to do it…so people are always going to be typing jumbled text. connecting that text to a useful task does not add to the time it takes to complete the test (or adds very little), but makes it so a previously sort of useful act becomes more useful. Of course none of this is new (see SETI@home) …i think the really interesting thing about it is that people don’t even realize it is going on, they are just typing words into the browser.

There are lots of example of this. i think is really interesting (more info here) And of course SETI@home, which was one of the first big implementations of this idea, and is currently one of the largest.

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