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Can a Computer Program Beat You at Pictionary?

It may not know much about art, but it knows what it sees.

Computer researchers have developed a program that can recognize and identify rough, hand-drawn sketches, even as they are being created. Enlisting the limited artistic skills of everyday doodlers through Amazon’s labor-outsourcing site, Mechanical Turk, the programmers received 20,000 sketches, which they collated into 256 object categories and fed to the computer as a recognition database. The team then created software that, using these object categories as reference, attempts to identify a scribble as it is being drawn.

Pretty impressive. But you can still crush it in Pictionary. The digital doodle ID’er has about a 56-percent success rate in pegging pen scratch, compared to a human’s nearly 75 percent. This gap is due to the limited 256-category knowledge, which the programmers say can be expanded.

Beyond some serious gaming potential, the program could be used down the road in universal, translation-free search applications, on the theory that worldwide, a bunny rabbit is a bunny rabbit.