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​New Crowdsource app lets you work for Google for free

With Google's new Android app, you can help the company translate languages, understand handwriting and keep its shareholders happy.

Google Crowdsource lets you help the company with language translation, handwriting recognition and map translation accuracy​.
Google Crowdsource lets you help the company with language translation, handwriting recognition and map translation accuracy.
Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Google has a formidable artificial intelligence team working on everything from photo recognition to email spam filtering. But for some tasks, it's looking for the human touch -- yours, specifically.

The online giant on Monday released a new Android app called Crowdsource that lets you contribute your own suggestions to language translation, handwriting recognition and street sign transcription.

"Each microtask takes no more than five to 10 seconds, so knock away a few the next time you find yourself with a few moments to kill," Google suggests in the app description. "Every time you use it, you know that you've made the internet a better place for your community."

It might be more accurate to say that it makes Google's internet services more useful, not the entire internet, since Google doesn't offer free access to the underlying data of Google Maps or Google Translate. But as a longtime contributor to Google services, I can attest that offering free labor to the company -- or to reviews at Yelp, TripAdvisor and Amazon -- can give you a little dopamine hit. I've benefited from others' freely donated labor countless times, and this is a way to reciprocate, even if Google shareholders benefit, too.

I've corrected Google Maps trails and streets on many occasions, and just today I answered a bunch of questions about some restaurants I'd visited and uploaded photos of a park I hiked in. And that's just the active work: as I drive around, my Android phone silently improves Google Maps navigation advice and traffic reports.

Google's English-French translation has plenty of raw material to work with for good results, the company said, but that's not true of all languages. But even a small number of new translations and translation verifications can really help Indic language translation, Google said.

The company has offered other opportunities for people to help for years. Google Maps has accepted contributions for years, and there's long been a "contribute a better translation" option on Google Translate. Its Recaptcha service uses hard-to-read text to keep robots off online services -- and uses the results to help Google understand words in Google Books and addresses and signs in Google Maps.

Some handwriting samples in Crowdsource are more easily recognized than others.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Honestly, it's hard to avoid helping companies these days. Just buying something on Amazon tells the company a little bit of useful information for what to recommend to people and how to set prices. Watching a movie on Netflix provides the same kind of data. Giving a song a thumbs-up or adding it to a playlist helps you find it later, but it also tells companies like Spotify, Apple, Deezer and Google what's hot and what's not.

Google offers some perks, too. The Crowdsource app tallies your points and shows them next to a trophy image. Going beyond a feel-good gesture, though Google Maps' Local Guides program gives people a terabyte of free Google Drive online storage -- though only if they reach advanced levels of participation. Maybe Google should consider more attainable perks for those help its bottom line.