The Treachery of Captchas

Select all images with pipes. If there are note, click Skip. Five drawings of pipes. A Skip button.
This is not a reCaptcha

Apologies to René Magritte. And apologies to Randall Munroe if xkcd got here first with this joke.

Of course, if Magritte were in charge of this, the correct action would be to click Skip. There are no images of pipes; there are only images of drawings of pipes. Nothing would happen, of course; this is an drawing of a hypothetical reCaptcha, not an actual reCaptcha.

Frequently, when I am dealing with reCaptchas, I feel like I am in Magritte-land. As I am usually trying to get something done, this is a waste of my time and, when on the job, a waste of taxpayers’ money. Today, I estimate that in a task of 49 items that I would expect to take two or three clicks each for a total of 100-200 clicks, instead took hundreds, perhaps thousands, of clicks while having to solve dozens of reCaptchas. I am not the first person to notice this problem.

I’ve figured out some of the rules, but others continue to mystify me, to the extent that I often have to solve 4 to 6 of them to be considered human for a single task. Worse, even though I did my work in one session today, once I solved the first time and was recognized as human, I was nevertheless subsequently presented with another gauntlet or two of them for each of the 19-29 additional tasks I had to do. I apparently don’t pass the Turing test well enough for them to keep trusting the results, so I get to prove it again and again. (It could alternatively be how the browser, which might have been Chrome or Internet Explorer, handles cookies, although my tasks were, so far as I know, all on a Google website.)

It’s bad enough that success is not persistent. It’s worse that success is so hard to attain.

For instance, while to me a “street sign” is specifically a pair of signs, one perhaps reading Maple St and the other reading Clover Way, and the thing with the S-curve drawing on it is a “road sign,” I accept that to reCaptcha, they are both “street signs.” As with the linked blog post it took me a while to understand that this might or might not include slivers of signs, does not include the post holding up the sign, and does not include signs that are facing the other way so that I can’t read them even though I can infer they are in fact road, excuse me, street, signs. But I think I flunked one where a commercial sign was between two “street” signs and I didn’t click it because it was commercial and not government. (How it got there is anyone’s guess.)

One time it wanted me to obliterate “roads.” Did that include the back access to a parking lot? Apparently so.

In one that apparently has stumped me, I was presented with a series of images featuring “cars” that I was to banish from my screen. Now, earlier this same session, my goal was to banish “vehicles.” “Vehicles” is reasonably unambiguous. (Although I believe bicycles are legally vehicles, there weren’t any in the images with which I was presented, or at least there were no images that had only bicycles and no other vehicles. I think I passed the “vehicle” one.) But what about “cars”? Does that include SUVs? A Jeep? Apparently from the following, it seems to include trucks.

A reCaptcha telling me to banish car images, showing truck and other non-car images but no, I think, cars
This is a reCaptcha, with no cars remaining that I can see, demanding I continue to banish cars before it will allow me to proceed

Yes, there is an error message at the bottom, reading “Please select all matching images.” Yet, unless that sliver of a something-or-other that is just below the library sign is a car — I can’t really tell what it is — an SUV or truck? a trash receptacle like the ones we have on the street in San Francisco? Cars to me don’t have a back end like that — then “cars” includes “trucks.”

(Added a day later: I just noticed that their example car has a back end like what there might be a sliver of in the library photo. Perhaps I can be forgiven for missing that on what might have been close to my twelve hundreth click. The point is, I don’t mentally retain their example, I retain my mental image of what the back end of a car looks like, which is rounded.)

(Presumably copyrighted images included under fair use for purpose of review.)

Somewhere along the way I got sufficiently frustrated that I stopped seeing the instructions and started clicking signs when they wanted cars or vehicles or roads. It was too late for that one, so I reloaded the page and got a new reCaptcha.

They (whoever they are) say that we are in charge of our emotions, that we chose to react to what happens. On that basis, I decided to experience it as a guessing game one might play with a capricious five-year-old, and at that point it actually became fun. But it didn’t take any less time, nor was it any less a waste of my time or the taxpayers’ money, nor did it keep me from wasting a staggering number of clicks.

I believe they (the “they” who build reCaptcha, not the “they” who say we control our feelings) have quite a bit of work to do on reCaptcha before it can be released for general use. Alas, it has clearly been released for general use.

I can hardly wait for its replacement that I’ll have even less luck passing. Guess it will be time to hang up the old keyboard since I’ll obviously be too human to use the internet.



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