Suspend Your Disbelief

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I CAPTCHA the Castle

You probably know what a CAPTCHA is, even if you didn’t know its name. Those warped words that you sometimes have to type out? That’s a CAPTCHA. Websites use them to prevent spambots from posting (spam) comments. Humans can read CAPTCHAs very easily. Robots, not so much.

But did you know that although CAPTCHAs seem like gibberish, they actually help preserve and create literature?

Some CAPTCHAs actually help digitize books and magazines: the reCAPTCHA system uses scanned words from old books. Every time a user like you types in the word, it helps the system decipher old books. Explains the reCAPTCHA site:

reCAPTCHA improves the process of digitizing books by sending words that cannot be read by computers to the Web in the form of CAPTCHAs for humans to decipher. More specifically, each word that cannot be read correctly by OCR is placed on an image and used as a CAPTCHA. This is possible because most OCR programs alert you when a word cannot be read correctly.

But if a computer can’t read such a CAPTCHA, how does the system know the correct answer to the puzzle? Here’s how: Each new word that cannot be read correctly by OCR is given to a user in conjunction with another word for which the answer is already known. The user is then asked to read both words. If they solve the one for which the answer is known, the system assumes their answer is correct for the new one. The system then gives the new image to a number of other people to determine, with higher confidence, whether the original answer was correct.

CAPTCHAs have even inspired literature of their own. Some sites use two CAPTCHAs side-by-side, and reading them, I find myself making up a sentence or story. Apparently I’m not the only one. At imgur, one user posted a fantasy comic inspired by the random phrases, via GalleyCat:

via imgur

via imgur

It’s proof, I suppose, that writers see stories in everything.

(Oh, and if you were wondering? CAPTCHA stands for “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.” Bust that factoid out at your Superbowl party!)

Further Reading:

  • More fiction from an unexpected online place: the spam box

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