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As AI becomes ever more intelligent, so the steps we have to take to prove we're human become more complicated and annoying. Mel Croucher bemoans the rise of the web's CAPTCHA, but there may be some light at the end of the tunnel
The great Alan Turing invented modern computing, defeated Adolf Hitler, pioneered artificial intelligence and boosted the career of Benedict Cumberbatch. In 1950, the computer genius devised the so-called Turing Test, to measure how far a machine can fool people into believing it is as human as they are. So far so good. Unfortunately, half a century later, a bunch of American boffins came up with the abomination known as the Completely Automated Public Turing-test to tell Computers and Humans Apart, commonly known as the CAPTCHA. And that was when the misery began. For the past fifteen years, I have suffered along with the rest of humanity from innumerable online pages demanding to know if we are human. This involves deciphering a string of idiotic characters with revolting shapes, colours and backgrounds, then failing to type them correctly into a little box.
The CAPTCHA is supposed to sort the fleshly sheep from the electronic goats, and weed out automated swindlers, spammers and slimeballs, but all it really does is slow everything down and add to the sum of human misery. More so if the hapless human is hamfisted, sight-impaired, colourblind, dyslexic or daft. And apart from any of this, the randomly-generated distorted text is totally useless in keeping the robots out. There are now software bundles that can crack the most complex and tortuously mangled CAPTCHA strings with 99.8 per cent accuracy, which is much better than most human brains can achieve, and infinitely better than my own ability.
And so it is with sheer delight that while blundering around some WordPress websites, I discover my misery is over. And it's all thanks to Google. WordPress is one of a growing number of major outfits to sling out the near-useless, outmoded text-based CAPTCHA gatekeepers, in favour of a ludicrously simple idea from the mighty Google, which relies on emotional reactions as opposed to slavish mimicry. I am presented with a simple invitation to pick my favourite colour and then tick a little box that says "I am not a robot." Unfortunately my favourite colour is "freckles by candlelight", and that isn't in the options, but I persevere. As an alternative, I am then shown a picture of a pussy cat and invited to click on matching images that also feature dogs, guinea pigs and what look suspiciously like marijuana leaves. Easy! Even I can click on a cute little kitten in a box, whereas a malware script would not even recognise the question let alone the answer.
This newer Turing test is called reCAPTCHA, and I have just come across it again on Humble Bundle, the bargain-rail gaming website. This time I am asked to match up images of turkeys, and I confess to experiencing a few seconds of mindless pleasure as I click on the gobbling fowls and avoid bowls of cranberry sauce. An automated gatekeeper with a sense of humour. How splendid. How simple. Beating the bad robots is no longer a chore, it has just become a pleasure. GOTCHA!
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