July 17, 2009

CAPTCHAs gotcha?

Well all know them, we've all had to figure them out, we've all been beaten by them. What's the point of them?

CAPTCHAs are those annoying, weirdly written words (and sometimes numbers) that show up on your computer screen when you want to do something (like leave a comment on blogger) because the owner of the website wants to ensure you are human not another computer. They are tests that humans can pass but computer programs can't. This supposedly ensures that spammers can't access these protected websites and do their nasty spammy things.

All very fine I thought, but come on. Some of the damned things are so distorted, fuzzy and wavey with lines running through them that you need a PhD in Hieroglyphics to dechiper them.

(this one is easy -- some of the CAPTCHAs, not so much)

The term CAPTCHA (an acronym for Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart) was coined in 2000 by Luis von Ahn, Manuel Blum, Nicholas Hopper and John Langford of Carnegie Mellon University. I discovered Luis on 60 Minutes several weeks ago and was kind of taken with him. He's a complete computer geek who teaches at Carnegie Mellon University, and watching him in action I found myself thinking it would be great to sit in his class (I know, I know). The one thing he said that completely endeared him to me was what he is currently doing with CAPTCHAs with his reCAPTCHA website. "Over 60 million CAPTCHAs are solved every day by people around the world. reCAPTCHA channels this human effort into helping to digitize books from the Internet Archive. When you solve a reCAPTCHA, you help preserve literature by deciphering a word that was not readable by computers." He is using these annoying little hieroglyphs to digitize world literature? Now this is my kind of guy.

So next time you have to solve a CAPTCHA and say WTF, what's the point, know that you could be doing your part to preserve the annals of literature -- one word at a time.

(not sure which great work of literature these are from though)


Sharon McPherson said...

Hey, you learn something new every day!

Now I know, er ... sort of :)

drollgirl said...

i hate word verification caca! i used to have it on my blog and i turned it off. so far so good!

drollgirl said...

and i hope you have a great weekend!

Kit Courteney said...

I didn't know these things had a name... not that it rolls off the tongue easily, anyway :0o

Cheryl said...

Hmm, never gave these much thought (it has a name?!!) except to get very slightly annoyed when I have to do one. I'm glad there's a higher purpose to them.

Dan Johnson said...

Ha! I was golfing with somebody the other day and they told me about this...psolitic.

Jake Hammell said...

I swershed my way to the store, when suddenly someone shouted "Unbidi!!"
I turned around to see what was going on, when a hairm rushed past me with a purse clutched in hand.
Luckily I had just some from the spy tool store and had a dingi inflatable in my pocket. I launched the dingi and caught the hairm by surprise just before he managed to make a break for it.

Hey, that Turing test really works!

drollgirl said...

hope you are having a great weekend, with or without veggies! ;)

Lianne said...

Captchas really are something aren't they? I'm amazed how they can inspire and revile all at the same time.

Jake, you have made my day!!!

Jennifer said...

I saw the same piece on 60 Minutes, and my longstanding annoyance with vanished instantly. How ingenious!