Ever buy a concert or sporting event ticket online?  You’ve neared the end, entered all of your information, credit card and such, and then the website asks you to recognize and write a bit of gibberish, that shows up in a strange box, sometimes with its letters distorted.  Well, that’s a CAPTCHA, a Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart.  The Turing is named after Alan Turing, often called the father of modern computing, who proposed a test to determine whether or not computers can think, and can mimic humans. Those CAPTCHAs are there to stop a computer program from buying up all the Springsteen tickets.  A CAPTCHA is based on the understanding that the human mind is more adept visually than any computer can be.  We (humans, that is) try to find patterns where none exist.  It’s called pareidolia; that’s why we see the Man in the Moon, or the face of Jesus in a tree stump.  It’s why we are so prone to believing in conspiracies; it’s not paranoia (well, not always), but pareidolia.  However, computers, at least so far, weren’t as likely to see those patterns.  Although I understand that some computer geeks are working on correcting that.

Most of the time, when you’re typing in those characters, there’s nothing else going on; you are simply proving that you are not a computer.  But Luis von Ahn, who is credited as one of the inventors of the CAPTCHA, has created a company called reCAPTCHA, that is working to digitize books, using you.  The problem with digitizing old books is that, when scanned, the computer cannot always clearly identify the words (proof again that computers aren’t very visual).  So, those indecipherable (by the computer) words are thrown to TicketMaster, or whoever.  You are buying your Springsteen tickets, and when the box pops up, this time it’s a real word, just blurred.  When you type in the word, TicketMaster shares that with reCAPTCHA, which then inserts that corrected word into the text of a book being digitized.  Mr. von Ahn says that he wants to make sure that for those five seconds while you’re typing that word, your time is put to good use.  Without knowing it, you are multitasking.

The Side Bar by Joseph McDonagh is a monthly blog of random topics on local interests. Joe is a writer posing as an independent insurance agent. His interests include the Red Sox, healthcare, etymology and linguistics, history, and the cultivation of democracy. Contact Joe at josephpmcdonagh@gmail.com