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Google Acquires ReCAPTCHA


ReCAPTCHA Inc., a spin-off of Carnegie Mellon University's Computer Science Department, has been acquired by Google Inc. The Pittsburgh-based reCAPTCHA company developed online puzzles that serve the dual purpose of protecting websites and digitizing printed text.

The reCAPTCHA puzzles, which consist of words with distorted letters that computer users must decipher to register for services online or otherwise gain access to a website, began as a research project of Luis von Ahn, assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon. ReCAPTCHAs were introduced in 2007 and are used by many leading websites. The company, ReCAPTCHA Inc., was founded by von Ahn in 2008.

Like CAPTCHA (Completely Automatic Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) puzzles, reCAPTCHAs distinguish human visitors to websites from automated intruders. But reCAPTCHAs are created using words from printed texts that current optical character recognition programs are incapable of reading. So when humans solve the puzzle, they also help digitize pre-computer-age books, newspapers and other printed materials.

"Google is the best fit for reCAPTCHA," von Ahn said. "From the very start, people often assumed the project was connected to Google, so it only makes sense that reCAPTCHA Inc. ultimately would find a home within Google."

Multiple ties exist between Google and Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science, von Ahn noted. Many researchers from the two organizations collaborate with each other and Google's Pittsburgh engineering office is situated on Carnegie Mellon's campus. In 2006, Google licensed the ESP Game, an online game devised by von Ahn, for use as the Google Image Labeler.

According to the Official Google Blog, posted by von Ahn and Google Product Manager Will Cathcart,"reCAPTCHA's unique technology improves the process that converts scanned images into plain text, known as Optical Character Recognition (OCR). This technology also powers large scale text-scanning projects like Google Books and Google News Archive Search. Having the text version of documents is important because plain text can be searched, easily rendered on mobile devices and displayed to visually impaired users. So we'll be applying the technology within Google not only to increase fraud and spam protection for Google products but also to improve our books and newspaper scanning process.

Von Ahn will remain on the computer science faculty at Carnegie Mellon, but will also work at Google's Pittsburgh engineering office.

ReCAPTCHA Inc. is among the startups that have participated in Carnegie Mellon's Project Olympus, which provides advice, incubator space and investor connections to help faculty and students explore the commercial potential of their ideas.


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