Captchas as currency

In the computer world, the traditional valuable limited resources are time (speed), memory, and storage space. But computers do not stand alone — they are designed to complement the activities that we cannot yet automate, such as creativity, fuzzy analogies, and complex visual perception. It’s that last one that interests me.

I’m sure we’ve all seen on web registration forms and other places that spambots can cause trouble. A captcha is a sort of a system interrupt that requires interaction from outside of the normal program flow — in this case, a human user. This interruption effectively prevents rapid automatic registration or harvesting, without seriously impeding the user.

So, what’s it worth to spammers to acquire this rare resource? Would they pay people to interpret captchas? Could they present the captchas on their own sites, piping the responses right back to the original site? What about manual spam, where people are spamming by hand to gain referrals? (Think about those “Free iPod” pyramid schemes, where each user is required to sign up ten others before getting their prize.)

The question goes beyond captchas and optical character recognition. There is already work being done on captchas based on logic puzzles, analogies, and problem solving, as well as natural language abilities. Our unique abilities and highly optimized brains may one day be harnessed to fight against automation technology. Some day there may be professions There have always been professions that exist because they couldn’t be automated. But these new jobs would exist solely because of technology that attempts to resist automation.

In summary:

  • Humans have idiosyncratic and fluid minds that get bored by repitition
  • Computers were designed partly to save us from repetitive tasks
  • Programs have highly automatic and repetition-friendly structures
  • Spambots use the automaticity of computers to take advantage of services
  • Captchas were designed to save computers from their own automaticity by using humans as a randomizing principle
  • There is a growing industry using humans to repetitively perform tasks that are not automatic enough for computers, like decoding captchas


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