How we all contribute to the digital library

How we could all devote brainpower to digitizing the world's texts.

I’m going to Pittsburgh tomorrow, where I hope to meet (among many others) with Luis Von Ahn. He’s a professor at Carnegie Mellon who’s come up with a scheme to get us all helping to digitize books.

The idea focused on CAPTCHAs, those bits of messy writing we have to figure out to show that we’re humans, and not spam-spewing robots. It takes a certain amount of fuzzy human thinking to pick out those letters. We’re good at it. Machines aren’t.

So Von Ahn’s idea is to turn the billions of illegible words in digital libraries into so-called reCAPTCHAs. And every time we enter a protected Web site, we could help turn a conundrum into digital letters. We become an open-source work force. He estimates that 60 million CAPTCHAS are solved every day, each one taking about 10 seconds. So that’s 150,000 hours a day of human labor that could be used to help fill blanks in the world’s digital library.

So, what other useful work could we do by harnessing our bodies and brains? All those people working out like iPodded beasts of burden in gyms should be powering the air-conditioning. I’m sure that’s happening somewhere… Other ideas?

By the way, I’m trying to get a computer to take on the road. Still struggling. If I don’t find one, we could have a couple of dark days on this blog. Heather’s office has that empty look.

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