Raise your hand if you have ever sworn at your computer while keying hard to read letters to prove you are human. Yes, I am talking about CAPTCHA – that distorted text that makes users squint their eyes to decipher a tricky combination of words and letters and spend a good 10-15 secs before they actually did something useful.

While very irritating, CAPTCHA do something very useful. They protect websites.

“CAPTCHAs are used by many websites to prevent abuse from “bots,” or automated programs usually written to generate spam. No computer program can read distorted text as well as humans can, so bots cannot navigate sites protected by CAPTCHAs.”

The brains behind CAPTCHA, Luis von Ahm and his team while proud of the fact that millions were using their invention everyday also saw hundreds of thousands of hours of lost productivity as people typed in their CAPTCHA. The question- ‘how can we better use these 10 secs of human potential that we have at our disposal’ led them to something better than spam protection. Spam protection with a way to digitize books – Re-CAPTCHA. How brilliant!

Digitizing books is a key way to spread knowledge and bring information to those who have no access to the book, but have access to internet, while also preserving older books out of circulation. But OCR (optical character recognition) does a poor job in  recognizing old styles and text. That is where humans come in. While typing in verification text, we are also helping digitize words that current OCR technology does poorly.

Online collaboration on a massive scale can potentially solve huge problems and make our lives more efficient.

And it all started with a thought- how can we use the 10 seconds that millions of people are spending on CAPTCHA?

“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. In this talk, 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.”

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