You May Have Helped Translate Books Without Knowing It
By Chad Upton | Editor
If you’ve created a website account with Facebook, TicketMaster, Twitter, CNN, Craigslist or thousands of other sites, then you have helped translate text from old books and newspapers.
Websites that offer free accounts try to ensure that every account is created by a real human being instead of a computer “bot” — computer programs written to automatically create accounts and then spam those websites with ads. One way to protect against bots is to have people do something that is easy for a human but difficult for a computer: read distorted text.
That’s why you are frequently asked to solve these simple word puzzles. Although it’s a bit annoying, it helps make the website better by reducing spam and other abuse. There are many variants of these puzzles, called captchas, and if the website uses the reCAPTCHA system, your work can also benefit society.
You see, the unclear words in a reCAPTCHA are scanned from old books and newspapers for the google books project. After scanning the books, they run the scans through a computer to translate the images into text, but computer programs aren’t very good at reading blurry words. That’s exactly why this is a perfect way to test if someone is human, because a computer already tried to solve it and failed.
The solution you enter is compared to the solution that other people have entered for the same word. When the program gets a number of consistent answers from multiple people then that word is fixed in the digital copy of the book or newspaper.
This effort might sound futile, but approximately 200 million of these little puzzles are solved each day. Although it only takes you a few seconds, it adds up to around 150,000 hours of work per week. This is called “crowd-sourcing” — a small contribution from a lot of people that collectively make a significant contribution to something grand.