Digitizing Human Knowledge

I took some photos at the Pace Gallery Social Media exhibit this past fall.  The magnified “CAPTCHA” image to the left was a part of the exhibit called “I Am Human.”  In the museum’s display reproduction of a screen captcha, the letters were nailed to a blank wall like constellations.  They formed a Milky Way of swirled and distorted words that, if deciphered correctly by human eyes, could make it possible for a website to automatically filter out the bots. These jumbled words are highly recognizable to anyone on the Internet who has ever logged in to leave a comment on a site.

When I took this photo, I had no idea that the random combinations of squiggled words in a captcha had become an Internet meme.  There are websites devoted to collecting community captcha artwork, like CAPTCHArtCaptcha Art website, or the Captcha Art tumblr.  And there are many, many more. Click here for Oddee’s 20 Funniest Captcha Art Pics.

Here are a few entertaining captcha screenshots (taken from the Oddee article and the recent TED Talk by Louis Von Ahn, called “Massive-Scale Online Collaboration”):







In his fascinating TED Talk, “Massive Scale Online Collaboration,” captcha co-creator, Luis von Ahn talks about the evolution of the captcha and his newer projects, like reCAPTCHA (which was eventually acquired by Google).  Von Ahn says that each time we log on to a site with a reCAPTCHA and unscramble the language to prove we’re human, we’re helping to digitalize books. (The first word you decipher is presented to you by the system because it’s trying to understand that word in a book it’s currently digitizing and it’s having trouble because the book pages are yellowed, damaged, or somehow unreadable.  You get the second word in the reCaptcha to confirm your humanity.  The second word is the one that is already understood by the system and can be confirmed as correct.)  Over 2 and a half million books are digitized per year using reCAPTCHA.  So the next time you feel inconvenienced by the jumbled words you are forced to type to enter a site or leave a comment online, you should feel productive because you’re actually contributing to the digitization of books.  A little over 750 million people all over the world have been involved in this collective digitization of knowledge.  Von Ahn’s project is described on the TED site like this:

After re-purposing CAPTCHA so each human-typed response helps digitize books, Luis von Ahn wondered how else to use small contributions by many on the Internet for greater good. At TEDxCMU, he shares how his ambitious new project, Duolingo, will help millions learn a new language while translating the Web quickly and accurately — all for free.

Von Ahn’s next project (described in more detail in the TED Talk  below), called “Duolingo,” was created to “get 100 million people translating the web into every major language for free.”

Instead of hiring actual translators, Duolingo attempts a “massive scale collaboration.”  It challenges real people to learn a language while helping to translate the web in a ‘learning by doing’ setting.  This allows the average person to learn a language and create content and value simultaneously.  The  experience/transaction is free.  Von Ahn says this provides a “fair business model for language education… one that doesn’t discriminate  against  poor people” (and it’s far cheaper and more  accessible  than the  Rosetta Stone).

This is Luis von Ahn’s TED Talk:

…. I’ll leave you with a creative and entertaining piece of captcha artwork:


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