Empowerment through Collective Intelligence

Chances are very good, whether you’re aware of it or not, that you are contributing to the effort to digitize books, and thus to make printed, archived information accessible to the world. If, for example, you have typed the words from images, to prove you are a human and not a computer, as you completed a web registration form, you might have translated a tiny slice of a book that was illegible to a scanner.

CAPTCHA is the name of the technology that prevents automated bots from navigating a website and potentially generating spam. Those pesky bots are incapable of deciphering the text from distorted images of random words and nonwords. Humans, on the other hand, solve about 200 million CAPTCHAs a day, collectively contributing about 150,000 work hours in the process.3 The founders of CAPTCHA realized that they could put this time to work for the greater good.

reCAPTCHA is the version of CAPTCHA that presents a word from a book that cannot be deciphered by a computer, along with a test word. If the user deciphers the test word correctly, the chances are high the user is deciphering the unknown word correctly as well. When several users reach consensus—essentially, all provide the same translation—then the unknown word is solved and the translation is plugged back in to the digitized version of the book. In this way, reCAPTCHA is helping to improve, for example, the quality of the New York Times’ digitized archives and Google Books, which ...

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