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Games With a Purpose

While most online game sites are there for fun, gwap.com, launched by Luis von Ahn (an assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University), is designed for "games with a purpose" (GWAPs). Each game on the site is a multi-player online game designed to be fun and also accomplish tasks that are easy for humans but beyond the capability of today's computers.

"We have games that can help improve Internet image and audio searches, enhance artificial intelligence and teach computers to see," says von Ahn. "But that shouldn't matter to the players because it turns out these games are super fun."

The site initially will feature four new games and a classic called the ESP Game. The first GWAP developed by von Ahn, the ESP Game displays images to two players who each try to guess words that the other player would use to describe the image. The game improves Web image searches by generating descriptions of uncaptioned images. Google has licensed the game, which the company calls Google Image Labeler. The new games are:

  • Matchin, a game in which players judge which of two images is more appealing, is designed to eventually enable image searches to rank images based on which ones look the best.
  • Tag a Tune, in which players describe songs so that computers can search for music other than by title -- such as happy songs or love songs.
  • Verbosity, a test of common sense knowledge that will amass facts for use by artificial intelligence programs.
  • Squigl, a game in which players trace the outlines of objects in photographs to help teach computers to more readily recognize objects.

In addition to von Ahn, gwap.com and the games have been developed by software engineers Mike Crawford and Edison Tan and graduate students Severin Hacker, Edith Law and Bryant Lee.

Winner of a 2006 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," von Ahn is a pioneer in the field of human computation, which uses the Internet to tap human minds to accomplish feats that still befuddle computers. As a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon, he helped develop CAPTCHAs (Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart), the distorted letter puzzles used millions of times each day worldwide to protect Web sites from computerized impostors. Last year, he introduced a new version called reCAPTCHAs, in which people solve these puzzles to gain access to a site and simultaneously help digitize old books by converting printed text into computer-readable letters.

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