New web security system tests computers' emotions

Sorting the men from the replicants.

A new Captcha system seeks to separate humans from computers by testing empathy – and spreading awareness of human rights human rights abuses at the same time.

A Captcha – which stands for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart – is the test used when logging into many sites to distinguish between real people and malicious programs, which may attempt to log into many thousands of accounts at the same time. You've all used one – signing up for a New Statesman commenting account, if nowhere else – and they are ripe for being put to good use.

ReCAPTCHA was the first socially-beneficial captcha, and still the most popular. It uses the combined might of all the human brain power wasted on Captchas to transcribe scanned books:

reCAPTCHA improves the process of digitizing books by sending words that cannot be read by computers to the Web in the form of CAPTCHAs for humans to decipher. More specifically, each word that cannot be read correctly by OCR is placed on an image and used as a CAPTCHA. This is possible because most OCR programs alert you when a word cannot be read correctly.

Since it took off, ReCAPTCHA has been used on innumerable sites, and is now displayed over 100 million times a day. But that success comes at a price. Now that the low hanging fruit has been plucked, fewer and fewer easily-transcribable words remain in its corpus, meaning that the system regularly throws up completely unintelligible words, words in other scripts, or things which just aren't language at all.

The civil rights captcha wants to be the replacement. Rather than using the captcha to perform useful work, like reCAPTCHA, it uses it to raise awareness about important issues:

Instead of visually decoding an image of distorted letters, the user has to take a stand regarding facts about human rights. Depending on whether the described situation is positively or negatively charged, the CAPTHA generates three random words from a database. These words describe positive and negative emotions. The user selects the word that best matches how they feel about the situation, and writes the word in the CAPTCHA. Only one answer is correct, the answer showing compassion and empathy.

As well as being important socially – example questions include "The parliament in St. Petersburg recently passed a law that forbids "homosexual propaganda". How does that make you feel?" – the Civil Rights Captcha is stronger against attack as well. It includes the same visual element as a reCAPTCHA, requiring potential attackers to decipher obfuscated words, but also requires any automated attack to parse a complex question, pick the right emotion, and only then work out which of the proffered words match that emotion.

The whole thing is rather reminiscent of Blade Runner:

We'll catch those pesky replicants yet.

Rutger Hauer, in the film Blade Runner.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”