humans helping computers


It happens all the time: you’re registering a free e-mail account or making a purchase online, when up pops a wavy, multicolored word. The system asks you to retype the word – and you roll your eyes, squint a little, and transcribe. This little test is one of the most successful techniques for making sure the person trying to log on is really a human, and not a digital “bot” prying into the site.

But now, when you type that word, something else may be happening as well: You may be deciphering a word from a decaying old book, helping to transform a historic text into a new digital file.

In May of last year, computer scientists started using those cryptic-looking words to solve a frustrating problem. Digital cameras at libraries worldwide are scanning millions of pages of old books, automatically “reading” the texts and turning them into computer files. But as books age, their typography smudges and flakes away. While human readers have little trouble comprehending even the most mangled words, sophisticated computer software still hangs up on them.

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