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Accidental Transhumanist Art: CAPTCHA

In Image, Internet, Language, Literature, Technology on November 22, 2009 at 4:27 pm

A CAPTCHA or Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.  Captcha is a type of challenge/response test used in com  puting to ensure that the response is not generated by a computer.  You may know it from those deliberately distorted or occluded images you see when signing up for online services.  Because other computers are unable to solve the CAPTCHA, any user entering a correct solution is presumed to be human. Thus, it is sometimes described as a reverse-Turing test because it is administered by a machine and targeted to a human, in contrast to the standard Turing test that is typically administered by a human and targeted to a machine.  There is an irony in humans using computers to create a test that distinguishes humans from computers.

You can create your own here.  

What fascinates me is the use of CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA as an unintentional art form.    Something characteristic of this current era is the appropriation of memes and internet phenomena in modern art.  More specifically, CAPTCHA art is a historical record of what is like to live a human life in our culture today.  Upon searching for artwork, I came across this tattoo.  What may seem at first as a symbol for our computer-mediated life is also a validation for all that is truly human. It is a declaration that this flesh has passed the test and is not a machine.

In fact, what I learned is that the old scramble method of CAPTCHA has been replaced with the two-word combination method in a global effort to further human knowledge.

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.

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.

That’s right.  Each time you solve one of the reCAPTCHA challenges correctly, you are unknowingly participating in the digitizing of old NEW YORK TIMES articles that were printed before the digital age.  And so you may delight in the knowledge that those tedious puzzles are not merely validation tools, but also accidental poetry and a massive unintentional social conservation project.

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  1. The use of CAPTCHAs to transcribe/digitize old text is brilliant.
    Thanks for the info.
    UD

  2. Heya, I’m a relatively new friend and colleague of TJ Van Slyke… in passing I was told to check out your blog and this post… Odd I wrote a post about CAPTCHA’s as well http://salvationisapopsong.com/posts/2008/12/23/killing_two_birds_with_one_watermelon hehe my post goes in a very different direction but… yah. Nice work peace! Magic! . BN

  3. Is reCaptcha being used anywhere? You don’t mention that. Also, what’s the connection between this post, your blog’s title, and “Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Book Store”, if any?

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