Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Authenticating Oneself as a Human and the Digitization of Books

Ever find yourself hurryingly trying to buy a ticket to that not- to- be missed concert? You scroll down all the way to the bottom of the page to find a box prompting you to type out some distorted array of characters. How annoying right! These pesky barriers that are in between you are your coveted concert ticket are called CAPTCHAs and they’re actually quite useful! CAPTCHAs prevent ticket scalpers from creating computer programs that can buy up all your tickets even before you have a chance to finish typing your name. CAPTCHAs work because humans have no trouble deciphering those squiggly words while computers simple can’t do so just yet. So, while typing up a CAPCHA might take those full ten seconds, you’re actually validating yourself as a human! Cool right?


Sometimes the random sequence of word pairing is not so fortunate 

Howard Gardner, a researcher of creativity, defines a creative individual as someone who. "defines new questions in a domain in a way that initially considered novel but that ultimately becomes accepted in a particular cultural setting" (p. 66). Well it turns out, 200 million CAPTCHAs are typed a day (impressive). Although strange and somewhat annoying the first time you see a CAPTCHA, today they have become a very normal process when buying tickets. However, that means that humanity as a whole waists about 500 thousand human hours A DAY typing out CAPTCHAs. So, the creator of this program, Luis von Ahn, decided he wanted to use this otherwise wasted time towards the betterment of humanity.  


He realized that what makes CAPTCHAs so special is a person’s ability to authenticate themselves as a human through this program. Luis von Ahn asked himself what is a problem that computers can not solve, but that humans can in time frames of ten second chunks. This creative is doing what J. Jason van Steenburgh and his fellow researchers like to call reconstructing a problem by, "developing a representation of the problem and applying heuristics to transform the problem space so that it looks like the solution space" (p. 481). This is an example of an exceptionally creative person discovering a problem no one knew existed and solving this problem. Luis von Ahn realized that CAPTCHAs, although necessary, took up so much of humanity’s time. So he sought a solution by trying to think of an already existing problem that could be solved by the element of a CAPTCHA that make’s it so special.

Ready for his brilliant answer?

Through his reimagined Re- CAPTCHA project, each time a person authenticates themselves as a human through a CAPTCHA, they also are helping to digitize very old pieces of text! (mind blown). See, most computers are unable to translate old, worn, squiggly text from ancient articles of writing. But guess who can – YOU! Every time you scroll down to the bottom of your page to find two CAPTCHAs, you can go ahead an pat yourself on the back for doing such good work for the betterment of humanity.

Here's the video! Definitely worth the view! 

Works Cited: 
Gardner, Howard. Creating Minds. Basic Books. 1993, 2011. 
Steenburgh, J. Jason, & Fleck, Jessuca I., Beeman, Mark, Kounios, John. (2012). Insight. The Oxford Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning. 


  1. This post blew me away! I thought I was just wasting time typing in the captchas. I'm glad that the inventors realized what potential 10 seconds per person could have. That's definitely someone looking at something that was a potential problem and determining a much better solution for it. What I think is really neat that they're doing is the duolingo project. That's a great way to extend language learning to people of all walks of life. Unfortunately, I have not heard much advertising about it. Hopefully this will become the way of the future rather than the continued outrageous cost of Rosetta Stone language learning. I found this really interesting, thanks for the post!

  2. I love this post because this is a topic that affects everyone, but very few people know anything about. I never would have thought to try and understand the history of captchas, but I am so happy that I now do. I was one of those people who never understood the point of reading these warped phrases, believing that there did not seem to be a truly valid reason for it.

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  4. This is really, really cool! What an interesting way to view what I used to deem incredibly annoying and a total waste of time. Tying in the definition of "creativity" and "what it means to be a person" is such a neat concept. I'll definitely be thinking twice about the actual value of CAPTCHAs when I buy my next event ticket, and instead of mentally complaining, will hopefully think of this post and smile!

  5. This was such an interesting post. Even the title really made me think. I mean it's a little scary that in this day and age we have to identify ourselves as human beings and not computers. That just goes to show you how much technology has really advanced. I also really like how you tied in concepts from the book! This post definitely makes me appreciate those CAPTCHAs a little bit more.

  6. CAPTCHAs are always the most annoying thing about logging into a website, but it is amazing to know that now they are being used for something important. Using the CAPTCHAs to preserve our historic books and documents is an ingenious solution. The connection he made between internet security and typing old books sounds crazy, but is also truly creative. I will definitely enjoy CAPTCHAs more after reading this.

  7. This was such a fascinating read! The amount of times that I've encountered CAPTCHAs, I did not ever think there was some purpose behind them. There's no doubt Ahn is a notable creative for being able to link history preservation to something as modern as authorizing internet purchases. I'll definitely be paying closer attention to the CAPTCHAs next time I encounter one!

  8. This is a pretty incredible model! I never realized that this was occurring while we were all typing those in for every account and purchase we make! I think the rest of his TedTalk was also really interesting! I want to join DuoLingo now :) I have been trying so hard to learn Spanish for so long because my extended family speaks it, but since I was never taught it conversationally I was always so hard! Everything Luis von Ahn is doing is absolutely incredible. I would have never thought about the idea of translating old books or websites into different languages. He is such a great example of a creative! What a great find, Jax!


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