The Loh Down On Science

Fuzzy Writing

Far from a bad thing, our online time-wasting is helping to preserve historical documents.

Luis von Ahn of Carnegie Mellon knows what YOU did last summer.

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

A specialist on human/computer interaction, von Ahn crunched the numbers on how we waste time online. For example, he estimates that humans spent nine BILLION hours playing online solitaire in 2003.

Compare that with the mere seven MILLION hours needed to build the Empire State Building.

We also blow five hundred thousand hours per DAY typing security codes--those hard-to-read squiggly words--into Web sites.

But THAT, von Ahn says, doesn't have to be lost time.

Von Ahn, who developed those codes in the first place, realized that our ability to scrutinize fuzzy typing COULD come in handy. How? In deciphering historical documents!

Von Ahn contacted historical manuscript preservers for words their optical scanning equipment found unreadable. Then he designed software that uses THOSE words as website security codes.

So far, four million visitors to participating Web sites have, unknowingly, archived the 1908 New York Times, one security code at a time.

They thought they were hacking into eBay to buy Beanie Babies but no, archiving the 1908 New York Times.


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