Online Games Help Search Engines Work Better

Carnegie Mellon University researchers hope Web surfers will spend their free time playing Internet-based games to help other people's and businesses' computers get smarter.

On Wednesday, the researchers launched with five games designed to help computers with tasks they can't automatically do.

"There are a lot of things that computers cannot do, but we'd somehow like to get them done," said Luis von Ahn, an assistant professor of computer science. "So what we're doing is getting humans to do it for us."

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The tasks include improving computer searches for images or audio clips. For example, if you search on the Web for "sad songs," a search engine will generally show you links to audio files that have the word sad in the filename.

But by getting people to describe audio clips as sad in online games like "Tag a Tune," researchers can improve searches for audio files.

Users older than 13 are matched with other players on five games, with others to be added later. Among the games are:

— ESP, in which opposing players are shown a picture and try to guess what words the other player will use to describe the image. The game's goal is to help improve image searches on the Internet by creating descriptions of uncaptioned images. The game has already been licensed by Google as Google Image Labeler.

— Matchin, in which opposing players are shown the two images and asked to choose which one they like best. The more the players choose the same image, the more points they rack up. The goal is to help computers recognize what images people would prefer to see when they are searching for pictures on the Web.

— Squigl, where two players are given a word describing part of an image and must trace what the word is describing. Points are awarded based on how similarly the players traced the image. The goal is to help computers more easily recognize images.

Players don't communicate with one another or see one another's answers; the games tell them just that they've made a match.

Von Ahn is also the creator of CAPTCHA, the program that creates distorted series of letters and numbers that users must decipher at some sites to register or to buy things.

The puzzles were originally used to verify the computer users were humans but also now are used now to help digitize books by having the millions of people across the world who unscramble the words each day type in phrases from books.

Researchers said the idea of using people to do things computers can't is catching on.

"This is just the beginning," said Mike Crawford, the Carnegie Mellon Web site's chief engineer. "I think there's a lot of potential."