Gaming industry is helping the search engines.


Playing computer games can now achieve more than just the rosy glow of a high score. A new multi-player web-site launching today could help “teach” computers to recognise images and music just like people can.

Giving machines those abilities could help shift search results from relying on word or link counting, to being based on the material’s content. This will help search engines limit the effectiveness of SEO (search engine optimisation).

For instance, in the “ESP Game”, both players are shown the same image. The first player types a keyword they associate with it, and the second player has to guess that word. The result is a dataset of images tagged with the features people see or associate with them.

That human-generated data can be used by a search engine to intelligently “tag” the image exactly as a human would, says von Ahn, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“Then the next step would be to use that database to train computers to tag the images themselves,” he says.

In another game, “Tag a Tune”, both players hear an audio file and try to describe it in a few words. From those descriptions, the players are asked to guess whether they are both listening to the same file or not.

He hopes that his new games will become as popular. “We have tested these games with a lot of people and have found that they are quite enjoyable as compared to other “casual games”,” he says.

“Whether this succeeds or fails is likely to rest on the incentives to play,” says David Wortley, director of the Serious Games Institute at Coventry University, UK.

CAPTCHA is successful because users are motivated to complete the word puzzle to, say, register a new account.

Wortley says finding ways to motivate people to play von Ahn’s new games could help them take off. “You could tie these games in with websites which test compatibility with a partner – dating sites, for instance,” he says.

A version of the ESP Game has already been licensed by Google under the name Google Image labeller, to improve their search results and again restrict the activity of SEO, search engine optimisation.

But that raises ethical questions, thinks Stuart Middleton at the University of Southampton, UK. “It’s a novel idea, as long as people playing the games are aware that their answers are being used in this way,” he says.

“It’s unethical if they are not informed.” Von Ahn agrees: “All data we collect from the new site will be freely and publicly available,” he says. “And we make no effort in trying to hide the real purpose of this site, even the name is a give away.”

Contribution from Colin Barras (New Scientist).