Wednesday, October 12, 2022

reCAPTCHA a Rabbit

Have you ever wondered how the CAPTCHA tests got started, or why they are so ridiculous, or even what CAPTCHA means?

Yeah, me neither, until the other day.

Turns out, CAPTCHA tests were invented to aid in the digitization of books. When the scanning picked up a word that the computer didn’t recognize, the software would send out two words to be verified – a control word, like “word” or “control,” along with the word in question.

Who did these words get sent to? You and me. Every time we had to type in those two words that had some random wavy line running through them when we were trying to buy something on the interwebs, we were unwittingly helping a computer accurately convert books to digital form.

If enough of us typed in the second word the same way, the computer would assume it was valid and use it in the book. Fun, huh?

So, what does CAPTCHA mean? Glad you asked. Apparently, it’s a contrived acronym for "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart."

What is a Turing test, you are probably asking now, like I was when I looked up what CAPTCHA meant. The Turing test, originally called the imitation game by Alan Turing in 1950, is a test of a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.

(Alan Turing, of course, eventually went on to found Cyberdyne Systems, which as you know, used CAPTCHA to perfect the artificial intelligence in Skynet, eventually leading to the machines becoming self-aware and total thermonuclear destruction of the planet, followed by the terminators. Not a great legacy, Alan.)

As you also know, the original CAPTCHA system was flawed because none of us could ever read either of the words through the wavy lines, and we had to ask for new words at least six times until we got “and” and “cat.”

To improve the system, they made everything wavier and added numbers, so the words were no longer words. When that didn’t work, they got rid of the wavy lines and just melted the two number-words, making it impossible to decipher them no matter how many tries you asked for. This led to a very brief uptick in consumers shopping at actual stores again. The CAPTCHA folks were forced to re-improve the system quickly, however, when it was discovered that all the actual stores had gone out of business.

In September of 2009, Google acquired the CAPTCHA system in a multi-faceted business deal that also included the purchase of Cyberdyne Systems, the entire state of California, and the rights to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body after he, as they put it, “powers down for the final time.”

At some point, probably due to all the bad Skynet publicity, Google renamed the system to reCAPTCHA. The “re” stands for “really excellent.” Google explains the reCAPTCHA system as using an advanced risk analysis engine and adaptive challenges to keep malicious software from engaging in abusive activities on your website. Meanwhile, legitimate users will be able to login, make purchases, view pages, or create accounts and fake users will be blocked.

Google’s anti-bot detection has become so advanced that it now works in the background without the need for melted letters and numbers. There was a brief period of time when we were required to click on all the pictures in a grid that had a stoplight in them, or a crosswalk, or a car. This was cumbersome, though, because the guy outside of Google headquarters with the camera taking pictures of the street could not keep up with demand.

Google finally distilled it down to a single checkbox that simply asks you to confirm, “I'm not a robot.” This seemingly simple system works on the wickedly intelligent conundrum a computer would find itself in when posed with the choice of lying or telling the truth. Computers are forced to think in terms of ones and zeros, so they are unable to lie because they would have to divide by zero to do so, which would render them useless. Genius!

The “I'm not a robot” checkbox brings us to the other day. I clicked it, naturally, but Google didn’t quite believe that I was human. For the first time in my history with the checkbox, I was given a secondary quiz. I was presented with the six-picture grid again, only this time, there were no cars, stoplights, or traffic cones.

Click on each picture that shows a rabbit swimming.

How sophisticated are these bots becoming!? I mean, that is really specific! We used to just have to distinguish between cats and dogs, or something like that. Now we have swimming rabbits?

For the first time in all my years with CAPTCHA, I got a little nervous about what might happen if I got the answer wrong. If we’re all the way to swimming rabbits in order to detect malicious bots, then these things are obviously a bigger problem than I thought. Does my door get kicked in by the FBI if I click on a patch of water with no rabbit?

And I honestly can’t tell if that’s a beaver, and otter, or a rabbit. It’s just a blurry photo of something swimming and we can only see the head. Is that a rabbit with its ears back, or some other mammal?

Or is this some super-advanced trickery, and as a human, I’m supposed to know that rabbits can’t swim? Because honestly, I’m not sure if they can or not. I mean, that one picture sure looks like a rabbit swimming, but we all know what a bot can do with photoshop these days.

I would Google whether rabbits can swim or not, but I’m not falling into that trap. That’s just what the bot would do.

I miss the melted number-words.

See you soon,



Copyright © 2022 Marc Schmatjen


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  1. LOL funny stuff! And informative! Remind me not to read your blogs at night while Bob’s asleep! 😂

    1. If he wakes up, you can just give him one of my less funny ones to read and it will put him right back to sleep.