Before you can access certain functions on websites like Ticketmaster, Myspace and Craigslist, you are often asked to type a series of blurred letters and numbers for security purposes. This method is called CAPTCHA. Created by Luis von Ahn, it ensures that you are a real human being and not an automated spambot. It keeps things safe in cyberspace and protects users’ identities, so, as annoying as it may seem, the process serves a very necessary purpose.

Still, von Ahn realized that typing in these fuzzy distortions is a waste of time. Although it only takes about 10 seconds to type in, there are 200 million security combinations being typed in daily by users around the world. These seconds add up—in total, people are wasting at least 500,000 hours every day.

To utilize these wasted seconds, von Ahn restructured the security method to assist numerous libraries which need to digitize their collections. The libraries’ systems scan pages of books or newspapers, and a computer converts the image of each word into text using optical character-recognition software. Von Ahn says some of these words are unrecognizable, especially those written before 1900, and the computer often makes mistakes.

Von Ahn linked the CAPTCHA system to the libraries’ endeavors to eliminate some of these mistakes and leverage users’ time. His new method, called reCAPTCHA, takes those words not recognized by the digitizing software and applies them to the CAPTCHA system. When multiple people see the same image and a consensus is reached, the word is recorded.

So far, more than one billion words have been digitized. The ReCAPTCHA system digitizes about two years’ worth of newspapers in one month. Users no longer waste time with insignificant letters and numbers. If the reCAPTCHA sign appears on the screen, users can rest assured that they are helping a larger cause in libraries’ efforts to digitize their archives. iBi