Problems With Captcha

August 12, 2023


I am a judgment referral expert (Judgment Broker) who writes a lot. This article is my opinion about how Captcha and other challenge systems may have gone too far, much further than they should have gone.

Captcha stands for “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart”. The phrase was first used around 2000 by Luis von Ahn, Manuel Blum, Nicholas Hopper, and John Langford of the Carnegie Mellon University.

Turing means a repeatable test of computer software’s ability to act with human-like intelligence. If a computer can fool a human into thinking they are communicating with another human, the machine passes the test. The test was introduced by Alan Turing in his 1950 paper, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”.

A Captcha or a challenge system, is a test to see if you are human. It is most often text, pictures, or sounds, that the automated computer or robots cannot understand. In the beginning, such tests screened out people with vision problems, hearing problems, small children, and people with mental challenges.

Now, many Captcha or challenge systems only allow people with perfect vision, perfect hearing, and people who can figure out a specific computer puzzle. In the old (pre-2007) days, the tests were usually simple.

Back in 2007, estimates (read at TechCrunch.com) were that 160,000 human hours a day were spent solving these puzzles, at ten seconds per try. I bet that number is closer to a million human hours per day by now, when you count the number of times some must retry to get the puzzles solved.

Simple is what is needed. When one visits Captcha.net, they see a simple example that almost anyone can solve. The problem is, that these days, the actual tests are designed to defeat optical character readers (OCRs). The words or numbers are garbled so much that the average person has to retry a few times.

When I say garbled, I mean not even a teenager can figure out what it says most of the time. It is time to move back to simple Turing tests such as adding two numbers, or a simple distortion of some text, or asking someone to pick all the names from a list of words.

To make matters worse, great effort went into making an alternative for people with vision problems. There is often an “audio” button where you can listen instead of read. Try it sometime, and see for yourself how “understandable” the audio is to you. And of course, you cannot be on the phone, on Skype, watching TV, or listening to anyone or anything else while taking audio tests on web sites.

One benefit of so many web sites using Captcha or other challenge systems, is that at least one company, reCaptcha, used test results to help improve OCR on computer systems that scan and read old books and text. Google bought reCaptcha in 2009. Good for them, let’s make sure it is good for web surfers too.

When Captcha or challenge systems are too difficult, most people must try several times, and people with vision problems – forget about it. That is not right.

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