Got a few minutes? How about using the time to play some online games and help computers get smarter at the same time?

That’s what researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are hoping people will do at their new Web site, The site is made up of five simple games that are each designed to help computers with tasks they can’t automatically do.

“There are a lot of things that computers cannot do, but we’d somehow like to get them done,” said Luis von Ahn, an assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon. “So what we’re doing is getting humans to do it for us.”

The tasks include improving computer searches for images or audio clips. For example, if you search on the Web for “sad songs,” a search engine will generally show you links to audio files that have the word sad in the filename. But by getting people to describe audio clips as sad in online games like “Tag a Tune,” researchers can improve searches for audio files.

The games can be played by people of any age. Once on the site, users are matched with other players on five games, with others to be added later. The games are:

One game is ESP, in which opposing players are shown a picture and try to guess what words the other player will use to describe the image. The aim of the game is to help improve image searches on the Internet by creating descriptions of uncaptioned images.

ESP has been licensed by Google as Google Image Labeler.

“Images are notoriously difficult to organize because they lack textual cues, however image search quality remains a top priority for Google,” Google said in a statement. “Image Labeler helps us organize and target images so that users get the best possible search results for Google Image queries and are able to connect with sites that have these images quickly and easily.”

Mike Crawford, the chief engineer of the Web site, said it’s a challenge to create games that are fun and will keep people coming back to play.

“It’s a really exciting challenge to have a fun game that really helps computer science research,” he said.

Word puzzles

Von Ahn isn’t new to harnessing the power of the Internet to help computers do work. He invented the Captcha, the distorted word jumbles users must decipher at certain Web sites when buying items such as concert tickets. The word puzzles were originally just used to verify that the computer user was human, but now are being used to help digitize books by having the tens of millions of people across the world who unscramble the words each day type in phrases from books.

He said the idea of using people to do things computers can’t is catching on. He even sees parallels with Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit.

“We’re going to be seeing a lot of this in the future,” von Ahn said.

Added Crawford, “I think this is just the beginning. I think there’s a lot of potential.”


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