We all have experienced this, you are in a hurry, your Uber is waiting downstairs, you are already late and all you want to do is log in to your email and send that report. You fill in all the log-in information and there comes a random box asking if you are a human. You select the checkbox begrudgingly and a pop-up appears asking you to read and type some squiggly unreadable text. It appears like your email is deliberately trying to waste your time.

I, for one, used to hate these. But as a developer, I see their value. So, what is CAPTCHA? and why are they asking if I am a robot?

A Bit of History

Back in 1995, there was a search engine called AltaVista. Yes, before Google. AltaVista started facing a problem with bots ? (A computer software that runs automated tasks over the internet, attempting to impersonate human actions). So, they decided to come up with a way to identify humans from bots. Their solution was to add a question that only a human can answer. In their case, it was usually a squiggly word that is trivial for a human (with good eyesight ?) to read but difficult for bots to understand. This is the starting point of CAPTCHA. It stands for “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart” – very creative, I must say.

So, in summary, CAPTCHA, and its successors reCAPTCHA v2 and then reCAPTCHA v3 all serve the same purpose: to identify that you are not a robot and protect software from malicious attacks.

Untitled design 3 - Are You a Robot?

reCAPTCHA and AI – a Hidden Benefit

reCAPTCHA is slightly different from CAPTCHA. After verifying you are not a robot, reCAPTCHA intelligently uses your knowledge to teach the software about something new. For example, the computer might ask you to identify a traffic signal on Google Street View. This is consequently used for machine learning purposes. Now the software knows what a traffic signal looks like and so on. This is why you might have noticed random CAPTCHAs in the past. The computer is simply curious to learn more.

There is an entire subreddit dedicated to random CAPTCHA. If you have a moment check it out: https://www.reddit.com/r/captcha/

Since 2009, Google has released new versions of reCAPTCHA. The details of how it works or utilizes data for AI is understandably, not open to the public. Otherwise, bots will be able to maneuver around and we are back in square one. However, it will be interesting to know how Google uses this data in its machine learning engines.

So the next time you confirm you are human, remember that you are also contributing to artificial intelligence.

Written by Yousef Eshaq, RTE's Director of Engineering