You're using your computer to purchase tickets to see They Might Be Giants play a concert at a local venue. Before you can buy the tickets, you first have to pass a test. It's not a hard test -- in fact, that's the point. For you, the test should be simple and straightforward. But for a computer, the test should be almost impossible to solve.
This sort of test is a CAPTCHA, an acronym that stands for Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart. They're also known as a type of Human Interaction Proof (HIP). You've probably seen CAPTCHA tests on lots of Web sites. The most common form of CAPTCHA is an image of several distorted letters. It's your job to type the correct series of letters into a form. If your letters match the ones in the distorted image, you pass the test.
Why would anyone need to create a test that can tell humans and computers apart? It's because of people trying to game the system -- they want to exploit weaknesses in the computers running the site. While these individuals probably make up a minority of all the people on the Internet, their actions can affect millions of users and Web sites. For example, a free e-mail service might find itself bombarded by account requests from an automated program. That automated program could be part of a larger attempt to send out spam mail to millions of people. The CAPTCHA test helps identify which users are real human beings and which ones are computer programs.
One interesting thing about CAPTCHA tests is that the people who design the tests aren't always upset when their tests fail. That's because for a CAPTCHA test to fail, someone has to find a way to teach a computer how to solve the test. In other words, every CAPTCHA failure is really an advance in artificial intelligence.
Let's take a closer look at exactly what a CAPTCHA is in the next section.
One of the ironies of the CAPTCHA program is that a CAPTCHA application can generate a test that even it can't solve without already knowing the answer.
Not all CAPTCHAs require you to type in text. This version asks users to use a mouse to trace certain shapes found in photographs.
CAPTCHAs and the Turing Test
CAPTCHA technology has its foundation in an experiment called the Turing Test. Alan Turing, sometimes called the father of modern computing, proposed the test as a way to examine whether or not machines can think -- or appear to think -- like humans. The classic test is a game of imitation. In this game, an interrogator asks two participants a series of questions. One of the participants is a machine and the other is a human. The interrogator can't see or hear the participants and has no way of knowing which is which. If the interrogator is unable to figure out which participant is a machine based on the responses, the machine passes the Turing Test.
Of course, with a CAPTCHA, the goal is to create a test that humans can pass easily but machines can't. It's also important that the CAPTCHA application is able to present different CAPTCHAs to different users. If a visual CAPTCHA presented a static image that was the same for every user, it wouldn't take long before a spammer spotted the form, deciphered the letters, and programmed an application to type in the correct answer automatically.
Most, but not all, CAPTCHAs rely on a visual test. Computers lack the sophistication that human beings have when it comes to processing visual data. We can look at an image and pick out patterns more easily than a computer. The human mind sometimes perceives patterns even when none exist, a quirk we call pareidolia. Ever see a shape in the clouds or a face on the moon? That's your brain trying to associate random information into patterns and shapes.
But not all CAPTCHAs rely on visual patterns. In fact, it's important to have an alternative to a visual CAPTCHA. Otherwise, the Web site administrator runs the risk of disenfranchising any Web user who has a visual impairment. One alternative to a visual test is an audible one. An audio CAPTCHA usually presents the user with a series of spoken letters or numbers. It's not unusual for the program to distort the speaker's voice, and it's also common for the program to include background noise in the recording. This helps thwart voice recognition programs.
Another option is to create a CAPTCHA that asks the reader to interpret a short passage of text. A contextual CAPTCHA quizzes the reader and tests comprehension skills. While computer programs can pick out key words in text passages, they aren't very good at understanding what those words actually mean.
In the next section, we'll take a closer look at the kinds of sites that use CAPTCHA to verify whether or not you have a pulse.
I'M SORRY, I'LL READ THAT AGAIN
Now and then, a CAPTCHA presents an image or sound that's so distorted, even humans can't decipher it. That's why many CAPTCHA applications provide users with an option to generate a new CAPTCHA and try again. Hopefully the second time around won't be as confusing as the first.
Yahoo uses alphanumeric strings rather than words as CAPTCHAs when you sign up for a Yahoo! account.