Have you recently poked someone on Facebook, or logged onto Twitter from a public computer? Thank you and congratulations: Chances are that you just helped to digitalize an old book or an archived issue of the New York Times. How? You might have been asked to type in two slightly disfigured, but still readable words into a field of a webform before submitting it. Those words are called a CAPTCHA and are used to identify you as a human that disposes of cognitive capabilities to decipher and transform letters even when they are upside down, crossed out or altered in different ways. What you maybe did not know: Only one of those words actually serves the purpose of identification. By typing the other one…you gave assistance to a machine that was not able to decipher that exact word in the process of digitalization.
If you still have doubts about the significance of your contribution: Luis von Ahn, one of the inventors of CAPTCHA, explains in a stunning TED talk the original idea of harnessing efforts that people have to make anyway in order to create something meaningful for humanity. The figures he presents make it very clear that CAPTCHAs (or, more precisely, reCAPTCHAs) are not a minor, symbolic contribution, but through the CAPTCHA-system alone 100 million words are digitalized every day.
Harnessing efforts of a huge number of individuals to solve high-level problems is one occurence of Collective Intelligence. And Collective Intelligence is
such a significant phenomenon that Tim O’Reilly listed it amongst the core concepts of the “new” World Wide Web of the 21st century when he tried to outline the term Web 2.0 in 2005.
Collective intelligence, naturally, comes in many different shapes and styles. Some of the most prominent cases of huge projects that consist of relatively small contributions by a lot of single users are Wikipedia, social tagging in web contexts (where tags actually add meaning to a piece of information), or any big Open Source Software project. One might argue that reading and typing a string of letters is not a particularly intellectual act – but nevertheless, it helps machines to complete a task they would never be capable of doing without human cognition.
Another fascinating example for something that is bigger than the sum of its small parts has appeared in the field of education and didactics, namely in the context of MOOCs: In Massive Open Online Courses, where potentially tens of thousands of learners participate in a curriculum and take tests online; the result of a test does not only provide feedback for participants about their personal performance – but it allows to collect huge data sets about the learning progress of a significant number of learners. The data can be analyzed and compared to the results of other didactical methods. Based on that information, hypothesis can be developed and tested to see if different approaches might result in better students’ performance. Which means that for the first time in the history of this discipline, didactics can conduct real empirical and exact research.
The Greater Good and the Free Will
As fascinating as the idea of collective intelligence and massive scale collaboration is – doesn’t it feel a bit intimidating at the same time? A certain feeling that these new forms of collaboration are completely and entirely different from our traditional ideas of teamwork – where a group of people would (more or less) consciously combine their efforts in a (more or less) organised way to reach a (more or less) defined common goal?
What’s the deeper impact if “the internet” is able to secretly wiretap one’s very personal knowledge and skills to complete tasks “it” wouldn’t be capable of alone? Typing letters for a greater good is definitely not very dangerous, and hardly anyone would refuse to do so (if they had a choice). But if mankind can unconsciously translate 2,5 millions of books per year without noticing – what’s next? And where are the borders between unconscious, unintentional, and unwilling?
However, while you’re meditating on these questions – go to Facebook and enter some CAPTCHAs. Maybe you will get a word from that one book you’ve been waiting for to appear on GoogleBooks for ages.