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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 September 2006, 09:21 GMT 10:21 UK
Are you Google's gopher?
By Alan Connor
BBC News

Part of New York City flag
Say what you see...
Google has just taken on legions of new workers. None are being paid - and you might be one of them.

Since workplace computers were hooked up to the internet, office workers have found more ways of wasting time at work, with e-mailed jokes or videos of apparently-amusing accidents.

And then there are the games. Dr Luis von Ahn of Carnegie Mellon University estimated that in 2003, nine billion human hours were spent playing computer solitaire.

To put this in context, the construction of the Panama Canal took 20 million human-hours.

Being a computer scientist, Dr von Ahn was aware of projects like SETI@home, where volunteers donate "wasted cycles" (the spare time of their home computers) to help the Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory look for signs of extra-terrestrial life.

Rather than paying people, I get them to want to label images for free
Dr Luis von Ahn
For all the elaborate projects that computers are working on, there are still some things these machines are very poor at. One of these is seeing. A computer will recognise that something is an image, but will have no idea what it is an image of. So a project to, say, label all the images on the web will need to get humans to pitch in and help.

But who is going to sit around saying what they see for hours at a time? Enter Dr von Ahn, with a new game.

"Rather than paying people to label images for me, I get them to want to label images for free."

How to play

This is the game you might have been playing online: paired up with a stranger, both of you are shown the same image, and both come up with a label for that image that the other will have thought of. Once you get a match, you move on, building up points.

Google Image Labeler
Wits are pitted against an online partner's abilities
It's important to understand how compulsive this simple activity can be: it is a race, and it is rewarding when you find a partner on the same wavelength. And if a partner fails to label quickly enough, there is the frustration of lost points - even though the rewarding of said points is wholly arbitrary and worthless.

Dr von Ahn has created a suite of image-labelling games, and noticed many players putting in more than hours each week. For the public good, he decided to cut players off after 10 hours of continuous play if they had connected from a university computer.

So, many images are getting many labels. To what end?

A scientist, of course, should not need to have applications in mind in order to be seized by a challenge. For his part, Dr von Ahn talks of better browsing for the visually impaired, and better cataloguing of data.

And when he talked about these things at Google HQ recently, it is not hard to imagine the appeal of the game to his hosts - and their shareholders.

One licensing agreement later, and an academic research project has become a Google Images game - and the results are proliferating.

In fact, you do not even need to be online to be contributing: your strings of guesses are memorised, and other players may be playing against a phantom "you" - or it might even be a phantom "them" against a phantom "you", building up matches all the time.

Sweatshop potential

Having spent time helping out computers with the tasks they cannot do, you might wonder - was this not supposed to be the other way round?

Dr von Ahn's previous contribution to the web was the "captcha", the distorted string of letters or numbers that have to be decoded before pressing "send" in online forms.

One unintended consequence has been the alleged existence of "captcha sweatshops" in the developing world, where spammers employ humans to decode 12 "captchas" a minute, all day long.

So what might the unintended consequences of the Google Image Labeler be? The answer probably depends on how literally to take the Matrix films.

But making humans enjoy helping computers to see things - primarily to see humans - is likely to affect more than web-browsing for the visually impaired.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Think I'll stick to SETI@home, which I have been running for several years - when I have time to sit at my computer I'd rather be writing more pages for my websites than playing games, but SETI gets on with it while I'm asleep or out.
Megan, Cheshire UK

its pretty clear what Google's interest is - millions of properly captioned images will enhance the marketing value of their search engine...
leslie, canada

I had a go at the "game" and while it is fun, I'm not sure how useful the end labels are going to be. Most bpil down to picking a predominant colour ina picture like red or black, or having a labal men/women for people in the pictures. For instance, one of my pictures was a poster for "Moulin Rouge" but don't expect to get any matches for film, poster, moulin rouge, nicole kidman, etc. - the match we got was for "red". Hardly a useful tag for somebody looking for film posters, etc.
Tim, Greisheim, Germany

I'm amazed that people would work for free for a company that's worth billions!
Andrew, Sutton Coldfield, England

sdjlfcclesfjmncmn89^*I^&%^$%^s\,kncnln\scn aksdsnc and that's all I'll say on the matter till someone pays me.
John Hatchett, Hertford UK

intresting. Very intresting.
jayme, stevenage

This sounds AMAZING! I want to try it now!!! But I'm at work and the working I was waiting for my computer to do has just finished so I've got to get back to it..this just sound like a so much better thing to do between tasks than endless ego searching or the chat rooms and net working sites I usually spend my down time on!
Andrea Thompson, Waldneil, Germany

I was watching some nerdy BBC2 science thing on TV earlier in the week. A doctor of this-and-that was assuming and theorising and conjecturing and thereforing about something for which nobody really gives a stuff. It struck me that the more clever your scientific mind, the less likely you are to do something useful with your talents. I suggest this nonsense validates my theory.
Dennis, Basingstoke, UK

Amazon's mTurk, now you get paid. http://www.mturk.com/mturk/help?helpPage=whatis
Andrew, London

Where can i do this Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie! Sounds like a bit of fun, Should also cure the hours of boredom at work whilst helping out some one! I love the idea!
Lee Hamer, Oxford

This is simply theft of service. All the people who play these games should boycott them.
dian, NYC

This is only the beginning. How long before we are all working for the machines?
Milo Tsukroff, Poughkeepsie, NY USA

Urm..ok. I am up for this. Should be a laugh. I am sure that this will affect the economy though. At the moment I do not own a house - lets see where this goes. Inquisitiveness is all about 'why?'.
Russell, Plymouth

THIS IS AMAZING - SIGN ME UP how do i offer my office time? i hate sitting at my desk and not contributing to the worldwide effectiveness of my second most time consuming office passtime. - Surfing the interweb. BRING IT ON.
Martin Davies, chorlton manchester

Yeah, labeling images on the web I'm sure is sooo much more constuctive than building the Panama canal... geeez!
Nuno, UK

Brilliant idea! After all, however complex a computer is (and it is the most complex tool any of us ever use, I suppose), it is supposed to be working for us, the human beings, and not the other way round. One consequence of the image labelling is likely to be rather subtle: depending on the language used, some things may end up being labelled in a quite different fashion than people might think. I am thinking a little along the lines of international brand name problems and the like. As for Matrix - that rubbish does not even deserve a mention!
D. Fear, Heidelberg, Germany

HHEELLPP!!!! This is such a problem that none of my family are able to self control the amount of hours spent playing computer games - either on-line or standalone. I include myself in this. The amount of discord and disassociation this causes is so damaging to our life. If there is anything out there that allows control of how much time is spent on any programme in a day or week? Something that can't be disabled either. It would certainly help us.
Sue , London, UK

Where can I play?
luke strange, London

I didn't find this simple activitiy to be compulsive at all. I got bored after 10 seconds! The geeks at Google have to try harder than this to get my time for free.
Bored, London

This game is just avoiding the waste of time from humanity. IŽll never call this work for free, I shall say work for fun. But I sure, IŽll never have fun playing this game. Thankyou very much.
Vinicius De Nadai Andrade, Belo Horizonte / Brazil

I know I'll be up for this game. 30% at work (lunch break) and 70% at home.
Tagyal, London

Not much of a game is it ? you type in as many words as you can and then find that your 'partner' wants to pass on the image, so you've wasted the past few minutes - at least yu can earn some cash amazon.coms' 'mechanical turk'. There is no reward, and when the other party wimps out it's literally pointless.
Graeme Mulvaney, Coventry, U

I think its a brilliant idea from google and the Dr. However it does show how the internet can be easily used to manipulate people and a sence of injustice on a moral ground.p.s. i cant get the google link to work.
Sanjay, London

Surely Dr. Ahn is going to be smitten by his own sword here? He invents the "captcha" as something that can only be done by humans, not computers. Then he designs a game to get humans to do for free what computers can't do. Hasn't he just told people who want to bypass the protection provided by "captchas" exactly what they have to do? Yes, write a game to get people to decode the "captchas" for nothing. Seems extraordinary to me. Maybe he thinks that nobody would be willing to play such a game. I wouldn't bet on it though.
Robert Ulph, London

The other unintended outcome of Capatch is the further segregation and separation of visually impared individuals whose screen readers are also unable to make sense of the system. This renders a high proportion of visually impaired web users unable to register for sites and services which use this system.
Tom O'Dell, Congleton, UK

Tried Google Image Labller after reading this. I found the images are small and sometimes they are hard to see properly thereby making their descrption difficult.
Elaine, Northern Ireland

Human-hours? Don't you mean man-hours?
Alan Tench, Middlesbrough, UK

Are you Google's gopher? No. I am not. Because, I am too smart to be one. Google is the Internet matrix and majority of humans on the net have been caught in the web of Googledom. The bait is Google tickles the fancy of everyone online and before you know it you are hooked. I don't play games online. In fact, I hate computer games. I only use the Internet as the cheapest medium of mass communication and Google provides the raw stock for mass communication-information and as you know information is power. And I am using Google as the vehicle for my Information, Education and Communication (IEC) for mass literacy. Finis.
Orikinla Osinachi, Bonny Kingdom, Nigeria.

Thanks so much for highlighting this. I can now feel like I'm doing something constructive at work.
Tom, Reading

Sounds interesting. I sometimes have alot of free time during working hours. I am game
Adesh Mahabir, Port of Spain, Trinidad

Sorry, no time to comment on this, I have to go and play this game.
Melanie, London UK

A robot walks into a bar, the bartender spying this latest addition to the crowd in his bar, says out loud: "we don't serve robots!" and the robot replies "oh but one day.. you will" :)
Anon, Cheshire, UK

If it's oriented as a game, and turns out to actually be fun and enjoyable, then kudos to Google. We already are unwitting workers for Google every time we use their search portal.
Christopher Magee, Fairfax, VA USA

I just tried it as a guest and I am concerned that the first image that appeared was a wildly inappropriate cartoon pornographic image. Thanks BBC.
RB, UK

This sounds interesting, although I find it bizarre that one of the reasons Dr von Ahn claims he is doing this is to help visually impaired users when the captcha is one of the biggest obstacles to computer use for many VI users; as it insists on you writing down what you see before allowing you to send emails, ask queries, access a service etc, and it is purposefully designed not to be able to be understood by computer technology, the capcha entirely prevents blind people using screen readers from accessing many services. It is very obstructive and very irritating!
Tanya, Staines, UK

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