The internet. You’re on it right now. I’m online as well. The internet has developed into our greatest and most beloved collection, ranging from music to scholarly journals and anything in between, and therefore it has come to embody a depth of knowledge. We can swim from hyperlink to hyperlink in any direction we want to, much like one can swim in any direction underwater.
The internet also seems to be more fun when procrastinating, which is what I was doing when I stumbled upon Luis von Ahn’s gem of a TED Talk, “Massive-scale Online Collaboration”.
Ahn’s Talk was concerning his creation, Captcha, the inconvenient and sometimes indecipherable words we must type for human verification before posting something on Facebook or other sites. They usually go unnoticed, although they sometimes they end up in hilarious combinations. The point of it is to confirm that you are human, not a program designed by scalpers to purchase thousands of tickets from TicketMaster or to post spam. Captcha uses our ability to recognize random and awkwardly shaped words, which is something computers have yet to master.
Ahn realized that his idea was of great caliber because it was something that only humans were able to do, albeit it was annoying to some. He recognized this minor inconvenience as problematic as well. So he turned our 10 seconds of wasted Captcha time into potential. His new project, ReCaptcha, is designed to help digitize books. When we are given two random Captcha words, one is simply for human verification and the other is an actual word from a book that a computer could not recognize and decipher. Each word we type into Captcha correctly helps to identify the word in the book, and therefore, digitizes one more word in the book. One word at a time does not seem like an impressive undertaking, but with everyone using Captcha, our individual potential turns into collective efforts and can amass into digitizing many books, allowing us to have greater access and to swim deeper in the pool of human knowledge. Did I mention that all this is done for free? Some might see it as a little bit of exploitation while others see it as a little bit of genius.
Ahn’s Talk is especially relevant today. When the internet was merely a puddle in its earliest days, the idea of sharing was on every user’s mind. Self-proclaimed internet nerds proudly demonstrated the capabilities to create a global community specifically designed for sharing information. However, recently the internet has become a site of commercial endeavors. It is being conquered by business rather than being used to build the most massive library of all time. Locks are being put onto ideas; walls are keeping us out to protect corporate colonization of the internet. We should be able to have access to our library, since many of us have contributed to it in some way, Captcha or otherwise.
Projects like ReCaptcha remind us of the internet’s original (and best) function: to share, to collaborate, to connect to other people, to connect ideas. It’s time to break the locks, lose the business model, and go back to our ability to collaborate ideas on a global scale. While this may seem like wild internet-pile hyperbolizing, why not maximize our internet potential and the ability to connect our ideas for the betterment of humanity?
Ahn’s talk is an inspiration, a great example of an innovative idea. He recognized that our individual potential could become something larger with our new global community. Someone once said that two heads are better than one. But today, it would be better to say that millions of heads are better than two.
Inspiration: Luis von Ahn’s TED Talk, “Massive-scale Online Collaboration”