Captcha: Annoying People Two Words At A Time

By filling out Captcha's two word phrases, you're helping digitize old books. It's still really annoying.

So, we’ve all encountered the dreaded Captcha:

But there’s apparently some method to the madness:

reCAPTCHA is a free CAPTCHA service that helps to digitize books, newspapers and old time radio shows. Check out our paper in Science about it (or read more below).

A CAPTCHA is a program that can tell whether its user is a human or a computer. You’ve probably seen them — colorful images with distorted text at the bottom of Web registration forms. 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.

About 200 million CAPTCHAs are solved by humans around the world every day. In each case, roughly ten seconds of human time are being spent. Individually, that’s not a lot of time, but in aggregate these little puzzles consume more than 150,000 hours of work each day. What if we could make positive use of this human effort? reCAPTCHA does exactly that by channeling the effort spent solving CAPTCHAs online into “reading” books.

To archive human knowledge and to make information more accessible to the world, multiple projects are currently digitizing physical books that were written before the computer age. The book pages are being photographically scanned, and then transformed into text using “Optical Character Recognition” (OCR). The transformation into text is useful because scanning a book produces images, which are difficult to store on small devices, expensive to download, and cannot be searched. The problem is that OCR is not perfect.

reCAPTCHA improves the process of digitizing books by sending words that cannot be read by computers to the Web in the form of CAPTCHAs for humans to decipher. More specifically, each word that cannot be read correctly by OCR is placed on an image and used as a CAPTCHA. This is possible because most OCR programs alert you when a word cannot be read correctly.

But if a computer can’t read such a CAPTCHA, how does the system know the correct answer to the puzzle? Here’s how: Each new word that cannot be read correctly by OCR is given to a user in conjunction with another word for which the answer is already known. The user is then asked to read both words. If they solve the one for which the answer is known, the system assumes their answer is correct for the new one. The system then gives the new image to a number of other people to determine, with higher confidence, whether the original answer was correct.

I’ve got to admit, that’ pretty cool.   Still incredibly annoying, though.

FILED UNDER: Quick Takes, Science & Technology
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Franklin says:

    Something that is more annoying than typing in CAPTCHA’s is reading the spam that bots put on forums. Or paying more for tickets because a bot has driven up the price.

    So they’re a net benefit at the moment, at least until the bots can read ambiguous text better than humans can.

  2. john personna says:

    It is very neat. I don’t really mind CAPTCHA’s that much, and enjoy helping with the reCAPTCHA.

    (missing “r” on the first mention of reCAPTCHA)

  3. James Joyner says:

    Added the “r.”

    I don’t have much heartburn with reCAPTCHA and others that are at least easily readable. The ones that are like a blurry color blindness test, on the other hand, I despise.