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June 17, 2024

Oort Cloud Oddities: CAPTCHAs

By Alexandra Queen

I got up early to make my husband breakfast and pack him a lunch for work the other day. As I handed him a fresh cup of iced coffee, he looked form the omelet to the lovingly packed lunch on the counter to my pleasant face.

Then he grabbed the baby and bolted into the bathroom, locking the door behind him.

"Your eggs are getting cold, dear," I said patiently.

"I don't know who you are or what you want, but I'll stop at nothing to get my wife back," came the muffled shout from behind the door. "No, I'm sorry, honey, we can't go out there. Your real mommy doesn't cook or smile before 8 a.m. I think it's an evil cyborg sent from the future."

"To cook you eggs?" I asked.

"That's just a diversion to distract me while you wire the refrigerator into a doomsday device."

"That's ridiculous, dear. The refrigerator is my prototype. I've come to the past to recruit its help in taking over the world. Three weeks and bam, every jar of mayonnaise in the western world is going to be spoiled. Why would I mess with its wiring?"

"I knew it, Lillian. When the door opens, I'm going to grab the evil cyborg mommy and stuff her head in the potty. You flush for all you're worth. Got it?"

I went back to the kitchen. While I ate his packed lunch and fed his omelet to the dog, I did a little looking into the ways you can tell humans apart from computers. Or evil cyborgs.

They're all over the Internet, these little tests to tell humans from computers. You see them when you sign up for a new email account, or add yourself to a mailing list. Most of the time they look like words or random letters written by someone with severe astigmatism. Automated computer programs called "bots" can't read the words unless the bots have been crossbred with jackhammers or pogo sticks. In the era of the big box home improvement centers like Home Depot, this has been a saving grace for many small mom-and-pop hardware stores, which have been able to bring in extra revenue by hiring out their paint-mixing machines for stud service.

So if hackers are breeding machines that can read sloppy handwriting, how can you tell if your spouse has been replaced with a half-human, half-automated evil cyborg? If your significant other is able to read medical prescriptions and suddenly takes up telemarketing as a hobby, you need to hop on the Internet and look at www.captcha.org.

"CAPTCHA" is a word derived from the phrase, "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart". Alan Turing, originator of the Turing test, was trying to gauge how close artificial intelligences were to thinking like humans. His logic was that if a human couldnt tell they were talking to a computer instead of another human, the AI was good.

Originally, Turing tried to use parakeets, but they consistently recognized every artificial intelligence as another parakeet, including automated phone answering systems, their own reflected images, and even fishing lures of the same approximate size and color. Nowadays Turing tests are more sophisticated, but hardly perfected. One recent failure of note was when scientists attempted to use the cast of "Friends" as the control subjects. The results came back that none of the participants, including the six celebrity control subjects, were intelligent enough to simulate human thought.

CAPTCHAs take the ideas of a Turing test and twist it slightly, so that the goal is not to develop an AI good enough to fool humans, but to develop a test so good that it can screen out automated programs. This makes it harder to set up a program that signs up for hundreds of free Yahoo! Email accounts and then uses those accounts to send "organ enlargement" spam to innocent bystanders. Some of the tests are those blurry words. Others involve a series of photos with a common theme that computers couldn't possibly guess.

A work project had me rewriting contest rules to fit Canadian legalities and I came across their version of a CAPTCHA: a four-part mathematical skill question. The winner of the free drawing has to be able to solve the question correctly in order to claim their prize. Apparently Canadians are interested in making sure that their contests aren't entered by computers, automated programs, or Americans. I told a friend of mine about it, and he said that if he won a contest and then got disqualified because he couldn't do a math problem, he'd lobby to go to war over it. His reason? Weapons of math destruction. Yeah, you saw that one coming. You know why? Because you're a human, not an automated program. Or an evil cyborg.

Which brings me back to breakfast the other morning. I was still browsing the CAPTCHA site when I heard the bathroom door open. I turned to see my husband and my toddler peering around the corner.

"We have a test for you to prove whether or not you're really you."

"I'm sure this is going to be good," I said, and waited.

"What do you call easy-clean frying pans that aren't funny?"

I thought about that for a minute. "Non-shtik cookware?"

"That's mommy," he told my daughter.

Cheesy jokes. They may not denote us as the higher intelligence, but certainly set us apart from the machines. Or to put Descarte before the horse, "Cogito ergo pun".

"How was my breakfast?" John asked, looking at the empty plate on the floor.

"The dog said it was egg-salent."

He sighed patiently as he gave me a kiss goodbye. "I think I'd rather have the evil cyborg."

Comments and plots to take over the world to alexandraqueen1@hotmail.com.

This article first appeared in the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin.

Article © Alexandra Queen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-05-29
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