It turns out there’s still a couple things humans can do that computers can’t—like decipher those online security checks: “squiggly, distorted letters that look like a cross between a Rorschach test and a four-year-old’s signature—a CAPTCHA, as computer scientists call them.” Computers also can’t decode scanned pages of antiquated texts with blurry, misaligned fonts, or outdated words. So a computer scientist from Guatemala, Luis von Ahn, transformed many of those seemingly useless CAPTCHAs into a fruitful endeavor.
The Walrus explains: “Now a growing number of websites, from e-commerce (Ticketmaster) to social networking (Facebook) to blogging (Wordpress), have implemented the precocious professor’s new tool, dubbed reCAPTCHA. If you’ve visited those sites, your squiggly-letter-reading ability has been harnessed for a massive project that aims to scan and make freely available every out-of-copyright book in the world, by deciphering words from old texts that have stumped scanning software.”
“The service is supplied free to any website that wants it, and in addition to helping decipher books scanned for the Internet Archive, reCAPTCHA has been recruited to assist in the digitization of the entire archive of the New York Times back to 1851…The pursuit of such public goods, von Ahn hopes, will deflect any resentment from his human scanners. ‘We could do other things, like digitizing cheques,’ he notes. ‘But banks already make enough money.’”
Source: The Walrus