Posted in communication and networking, education, electronic imaging and displays, museum

Deciphering code the old-fashioned way

There’s nothing better than tricking people into helping out, especially in the name of history and science.

For the last couple of decades libraries and other literary repositories have been digitally scanning ancient texts so that they can be preserved and read by future generations. There is a problem, though: computers cannot always read the loopy writing or scribbles of some of the antiquated authors, or some of the page might be missing entirely.

At the same time, many websites have safety measures in place that prevent bots from impersonating people and getting into private information stored online. One of the most common safety measures is asking a person to decipher a jumbled piece of text.

Hey, said Luis von Ahn of Carnegie Mellon University, why don’t we put the two together? von Ahn and his team developed reCAPTCHA, a computer program that allows websites to insert undecipherable words into their security programs, and real-life humans figure out what the ancient author was trying to say, without realizing that they’re helping literary scholars all over the world. von Ahn says the program has been “deployed in more than 40,000 Web sites and has transcribed over 440 million words.” Unfortunately you have to be a member of the AAAS to read the whole article.

Just think of that the next time you want to do some online shopping – you could be deciphering a copy of the Dead Sea Scrolls.



Beth Kelley is an applied & digital anthropologist with an overall interest in how people engage with and are impacted by their environments and vice versa. This has manifested itself in many ways, by looking at creativity, playful spaces, built environments, and environmental enrichment, sustainability, design research, and integrative and collaborative models of learning such as through play and hands-on learning.