Those security codes you have to enter

I hate them, don't you? So annoying...yet so needed. Well on the way home yesterday I heard a piece on NPR about how those security images are now, on some sites, now merged with a project to digitize old books.

"Approximately 200 million of these are typed every day by people around the world. Each time you type one of these, essentially you waste about 10 seconds of your time," he says. "If you multiply that by 200 million, you get that humanity as a whole is wasting around 500,000 hours every day, typing these annoying squiggly characters."

But with reCAPTCHA, von Ahn has come up with an idea for harnessing all that human brain power.

He knew that lots of libraries have huge efforts under way to digitize their collections. These projects first scan books or newspapers by basically taking a picture of each page. Then a computer takes the image of each word and converts it into text, using optical character-recognition software.

But computers often come across printed words they just can't recognize. "Especially for older documents, things that were written before 1900, where the ink has faded and the pages have yellowed out, the computer makes a lot of mistakes," says von Ahn.

A human being has to look at those words and decipher them. It occurred to von Ahn that he could link this kind of activity to security devices used on the Internet. Instead of asking people to prove they're human by copying random sequences of distorted letters and numbers, he could ask them to decipher mystery words from scanned books and newspapers.

How awesome is that!? There is no end to my astonishment of science.Now I don't hate them all, just the ones that really are wasting time.