How Building Upon Existing Ideas Can Lead You to Greatness

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Photo courtesy of Ramunas Geciauskas

Most of us are familiar with those boxes of jumbled text on web forms – officially called reCAPTCHAs – that are used to tell humans apart from spam bots. They’re a necessary (albeit slightly annoying) level of protection on sites such as Ticketmaster, where a computer could attempt to hack in and order thousands of pairs of tickets in a row. But the other day I came across a video that revealed the full functionality of reCAPTCHA, and how it built upon its predecessor to make something far more useful. Which then got me to thinking – how easy is it to build upon existing ideas?

As Luis von Ahn, creator of CAPTCHA, put it in his recent TED presentation, there’s a load of potential energy and brainpower that can be harnessed out there. While discussing how he and his team repurposed CAPTCHA to help in the digitization of books, von Ahn pressed upon a really interesting topic for me – how do you make people do a job for free without even realizing they’re being productive?

That was the spark that led to the formation of reCAPTCHA – a security system that uses human-typed responses to help digitize books. Each time you fill out one of those text boxes on a web form, you’re actually identifying a word from a scanned image that has been taken from an existing print book. Humans have a far greater ability to decipher words from images that are slightly askew than, say, a computer dictionary, (the very reason for reCAPTCHA’s effectiveness as a spam bot detector) so it takes a human set of eyes to translate some older books from cover to cover.

According to von Ahn, people were collectively spending 500,000 hours a day filling out CAPTCHA boxes, and he saw the potential for something more useful. reCAPTCHA is currently digitizing the archives of The New York Times as well as books from Google Books, and utilizing the input of over 100 million CAPTCHAs every day.

In the digital age, we are surrounded by opportunities to improve upon systems that are already set in place. Some have argued that Facebook, for instance, simply built upon the idea of online journaling; and Netflix, then, is offering the same media rental service that Blockbuster was a few years ago, only in a way that is more appropriate and convenient for the current times. Sometimes we just need to look at ideas that are right in front of us to see the potential for greatness.

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