No Commodore 64, No CAPTCHA

Technology we take for granted today, might not have come to be if Commodore hadn’t released their ‘computers for the masses, not the classes’.
One such example is that of the CAPTCHA, the de-facto standard for making sure spambots don’t plant their commercial messages on your website.

Luis von Ahn’s parents had a candy factory in Guatemala. The young Luis, born in 1979, was fascinated by how the machines made candy… it seemed like magic. This fascination for how mechanical machines make things was put to new heights when, at age 8, he got a Commodore 64. As every kid he loved playing games, but he soon started making his own games and programs. He enjoyed it when his machine, his home computer, performed tasks that he had planted in his programs, his software. At that very moment, he realized that computers and programming would be something that would stick with him for the rest of his life and he decided then and there that he would pursue a career in IT.

He left Guatemala in 1996 and studied Mathematics and Information Technology in the US. Only 4 years later, he and 3 other of the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh came up with the CAPTCHA concept, which is short for Completely Automated Public Turing Test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. This well known concept has been adopted by practically every website that utilizes some form of registration. The user is asked to tell the system what the strange characters on the screen are. This is something another computer can’t do (or has a lot of trouble with), so the website can be pretty sure that the person registering him or herself on the site is a human being and not some spambot.

Luis even went one step further when he realized that the amount of “solved” CAPTCHAs per day (which is roughly 200 million) could be put to some further good use. This resulted in the reCAPTCHA project (which was bought by Google in 2009) and which basically replaced the random blob-like characters in the CAPTCHA by actual words that come from old scanned texts. Old texts that, because the ink has partially dissolved and thus become impossible for traditional OCR software to recognize, are now being “analyzed” by all of us when we register on some website. We all now contribute to the digital version of old books, newspapers etc.
If it weren’t for that present he got, just like so many of us found under the Christmas tree back in the 80s, the world may never have seen the likes of a CAPTCHA and the digitizing of old libraries would still be something of science-fiction.

Thank you Luis and thank you Commodore!

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