We’ve all seen them, right? We’ve struggled to fill them out correctly. You’re trying to register for some website and they ask you to tell them what words you see in the image. What for? Is it some kind of strange psychological test? As a matter of fact, it is.
These images are known as ‘CAPTCHA’s which is an acronym for “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.” Yeah, it’s a bit of a mouthful. Basically, it’s a test to see whether or not the entity filling out a form on the internet is a human or a computer program. That what a Turing test is.
Alan Turing is considered by many to be the father of modern computing. One of his contributions to the field is the Turing test. Turing created this test after considering the question, ‘How can we know whether or not we’ve created something truly artificially intelligent?’ His idea was that if you took someone and had them converse electronically with either a human or computer program, and that person is unable to tell which they are talking to, then a program is truly artificially intelligent. There’s some debate on whether or not that is a valid test for artificial intelligence, but the concept of a ‘Turing test’ is useful in any case.
A question you might be asking is ‘how can a computer program fill out a web form, and why would it want to?’ Well, the how is simple. Someone can create a program to randomly visit web pages on the internet, and fill out any form it runs into. The question of why is more complicated.
The basic reason someone would write a program to fill out web forms is money. Many web forms display the information entered in them on a publicly accessible web page. This means that a program that fills it out with information point to say, ‘how to get prescription drugs’ is getting free web hosting. In other words, it’s a way to distribute spam. Another reason to do it is do embed links to other websites. Search engines like google display search results partly based on the number of other webpages that link to a certain page. By creating more links, the programmer is increasing their google page rank.
So the creators of web forms are faced with a problem. They don’t want spam, and they don’t want links to other web pages, so they need a way to tell whether or not the form was filled out by a computer program (which means they can throw out the data), or a person. Enter the Turing Test.
The idea behind this specific type of Turing test is that a computer program would not be able to correctly analyze the image and pull out the letters and numbers embedded in the image. A human, who has a much more powerful brain, would not struggle at all. Theoretically, it’s exactly the type of special sauce that is needed to fix this problem.
Unfortunately, as with many things, practice doesn’t completely match the theory, and many people struggle with answering these questions correctly.
There is something interesting about these Turing tests, and it relates to the first to words: Completely Automated. These test are actually created by other computer programs. They proctor the test and then decide whether or not the correct information was entered.
In other words, you have an entity who created, proctors a grades a test that it would have no chance of passing itself. To me, that is a stunning way to think about it.
Let me leave you with this closing thought. If these tests are meant to tell humans and computers apart, and if you struggle with passing these tests, is it possible that you are actually a robot?