Hands-On — December 7, 2011
Massive-scale online collaboration
Luis von Ahn builds systems that combine humans and computers to solve large-scale problems that neither can solve alone. Ahn is an associate professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, and he’s at the forefront of the crowd sourcing craze. His work takes advantage of the ever growing Web-connected population to acheive collaboration in unprecedented numbers. His projects aim to leverage the crowd for human good.
Ahn’s company reCAPTCHA, sold to Google in 2009, digitizes human knowledge (books), one word at a time. His new project is Duolingo, which aims to get 100 million people translating the Web in every major language.
An example of human computation is reCAPTCHA, in which people help digitize books by typing CAPTCHAs on the Internet. To date, over 750 million unique people—more than 10% of humanity—have helped transcribe at least one word through reCAPTCHA.
All human computation systems must have a way to motivate the users to participate. In the case of reCAPTCHA, the value proposition is as follows: by typing a CAPTCHA, the user gets access to a desired resource like a free email account or tickets to a concert, and in exchange they perform ten seconds of work that is utilized to help transcribe a book. In the case of Mechanical Turk, users are paid a few cents to perform each task.
“For the last eight years, I have been working to develop an area of computer science called “human computation,” which studies how to harness the combined power of humans and computers to solve problems that would be impossible for either to solve alone. This growing academic field now has an annual workshop, a community with researchers from the top computer science programs in the world, and has directly influenced the popular online trend of crowdsourcing, in which crowds of people are enticed to perform work over the Internet. Subsequent to the development of this area, for example, Amazon created Mechanical Turk, a marketplace for human computation tasks (or “human intelligence tasks” as they call them), which is now used and studied by hundreds of researchers worldwide. Since then, other similar services have emerged where workers are paid to perform micro-tasks that are hard for computers.” – Luis von Ahn