Thursday, February 9, 2012


As residents of the “Digital Age,” I’m sure that all of us have run across something like this at one time or another during our day-to-day internet usage:

A vaguely inconvenient, highly annoying, and sometimes frustrating online security measure, designed to ensure that we are human and not some sort of automated “bot” out to spread spam.

Its technical name is CAPTCHA, which stands for Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart, and it was created at Carnegie Mellon University in 2000. The general idea is for a user to prove their humanity by deciphering and retyping two words, which have been somehow distorted to be unreadable to computers.

This, in and of itself, is a fairly clever idea. Bot sees CAPTCHA, bot can’t decipher CAPTCHA, and we’re all kept safe from the evils of bot spam. However, the Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science took it a step further, in terms of creativity, with the reCAPTCHA program.

reCAPTCHA puts a basic online security program to a dual, dare I say novel, use: digitizing old books, newspapers, and radio shows. Yes, every word that you type into certain CAPTCHA programs is a contribution to the archiving of these texts. For example, reCAPTCHA is currently helping digitize old editions of the New York Times.

To be digitized, texts are photographically scanned and made into text, which is easier to store and cheaper to download than scanned images. To make an image into text a program called Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is used. However, some scanned words are too old, too damaged or just too oddly written for OCR to recognize. All such words are sent to reCAPTCHA and used in security tests to be deciphered by the ultimate text decoding machine: humans. To ensure that the word has been decoded correctly by the human user, most CAPTCHAS consist of one unknown word and one that has already been correctly deciphered by the computer. If you reproduce the known word correctly, the computer takes your word for it on the unknown. With about 200 million CAPTCHAs being solved every day, I would say that it’s a pretty efficient way to deal with holes in text recognition software.

Sure, reCAPTCHA didn’t invent anything BRAND NEW and it probably won’t completely revolutionize the world (and honestly, it’s kind of a pain in the butt), but it did turn a mundane task into a creative solution.


  1. I like this take on creativity. I think reCAPTCHA might even be more creative than something novel or totally brand new. It's easy to say "Hey! I want to make something new that's never been seen before!", but it really takes insight and a bit of thought to instead say "Hey! This already exists for such-and-such purpose...But I bet it could do this too!" Instead of hours of volunteers tediously entering words or scanning documents, reCAPTCHA has offered a quick, rather clever fix. Now I'll feel so helpful the next time I have to enter a CAPTCHA! :)

  2. I am so intrigued by this post. According to Madeleine, reCAPCTCHAs are "kind of a pain in the butt," and until now I could not have agreed more. I never saw the use in typing a random word or phrase into a box before proceeding with necessary log-ins, sign-ins or blog-ins. But now I get it...and I smell creativity. I cannot believe that each time I take four seconds to type the crazy word in the box, not only am I protecting that program from non-human internet invaders (spam) but I am simultaneously helping old documents be transcribed onto the web, benefiting historians, researchers, and all those who may need to read some old New York Times articles. Immediately after reading that the purpose of reCAPTCHA was two-fold I thought, "boy, that's creative." I guess that's the point, huh? ReCAPTCHA is not an invention that will save the world (at least, I do not think it is). The creative inventors of reCAPTCHA have not "captured lightning in a bottle" in the sense that their invention is unbelievable. They have not discovered the theory of relativity or created psychoanalysis. But they have created something novel that serves two creative purposes, and both of these purposes are useful to society at large. Nice creative work Carnegie Melon, and thanks for the post, Madeleine!


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