We’ve all seen them. You’re trying to buy a concert ticket or log into a website, and they pop up stubbornly:
Called CAPTCHAs (an acronym for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart), the puzzles help websites verify that their visitors are real human beings. In so doing, CAPTCHAs serve an important role in preserving the value that web-based companies create, and have as a result become a valuable service.
The proliferation of the web’s countless services and marketplaces was paralleled by the proliferation of automated software that sought to steal sensitive information. “Bots” using algorithmic key cracking protocols began crawling websites, clicking on buttons, and entering information into forms to spoof rudimentary security measures. In turn, companies were forced to build security measures to block would-be robo-thieves, and word puzzles quickly emerged as a useful tool. While robots are very good at crunching numbers and performing repeated tasks, they are notoriously bad at recognizing distorted words. CAPTCHAs separate the wheat from the chaff. While many companies began developing CAPTCHAs internally, third-party providers also emerged to fill the space in the market.
ReCaptcha, a company conceived by several computer science/engineering professors at Carnegie Mellon University, emerged as an early leader in the space. Louis Von Ahn, a Guatemalan entrepreneur and one of ReCaptcha’s founders, believed that many of the worlds problems can be solved by harnessing the power of crowds. Putting this belief into practice, ReCaptcha charges companies for the verification service, but also puts users to work behind the scenes.
Although most people may be mildly annoyed to prove they aren’t robots, they are able to complete these small word-identification puzzles in a matter of seconds. What many people don’t know, however, is that during those mindless few seconds of work they are also helping to digitize the world’s books—one word at a time. ReCaptcha uses repeated comparisons between its users’ answers to gradually verify tricky words from all kinds of scanned texts. With more than 100 million ReCaptchas every day, the work adds up. Gradually, ReCaptcha expanded to include image-identification tasks, which help classify photos across the web (particularly useful for identifying harmful content). It also is building a large machine-learning database that is improving the performance of AI computers.
After selling ReCaptcha to Google in 2009, Von Ahn decided to take his crowd-work learnings and deploy them in a new space. The result was Duolingo, a gamified education app that helps people master new languages in small, manageable chunks. Users can practice their skills in thirteen languages through fun and challenging games without having to invest in long, expensive classes. In addition to being extremely effective, Duolingo is free for users. To make money, the Duolingo team realized that they once again had the opportunity to harness crowds to do important work.
As they progress through the language curriculum, users can elect to play an “immersion” game where they translate small passages of text—great real-world practice. What they don’t know, however, is that they are once again translating the vast digital documents of the Internet, a valuable service that Duolingo monetizes by charging content owners per word. What remains to be seen is whether charging for translation will be sustainable (it is already quickly becoming commoditized). It may well be the case that the company makes the bulk of its money elsewhere (certification tests, for example), but the impact of its crowdwork strategy has already been immense.
Both ReCaptcha and Duolingo demonstrate the utility of hidden crowdsourcing—that is, using behaviors that people are already doing to get work done. The beauty of this method is that it doesn’t require an additional conscious effort on behalf of the individuals in the crowd in order to be effective. At the same time, its utility may be limited to language-based applications, where the value-added quickly decreases. The philosophy is certainly appealing, and it will be interesting to see if and how it can be applied in other industries.