From Handwritten CAPTCHAs to ‘Smart Rooms’
Buy something online, enter your credit card number and mailing address. Simple. Then you come to the box with the CAPTCHA, the Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart. Here, the website attempts to confirm that you’re a human, not some robot about to commit a cybercrime. You dutifully copy down the warped, watery-looking letters.
Incorrect. Another captcha appears. You try again. Also incorrect. A third captcha appears. You start rethinking your purchase.
University at Buffalo computer scientist Venu Govindaraju, who, along with his UB colleagues, pioneered machine recognition of human handwriting, believes that this annoying 21st-century problem has a decidedly old-fashioned solution: handwriting.
“Here at UB’s Center for Unified Biometrics, we’re the only ones who have proposed and thoroughly studied handwritten captchas,” says Govindaraju. “Our perspective is that humans are good at reading handwriting, machines are not. It comes naturally to humans. But computer scientists typically consider handwriting a hopeless case, until someone comes along and shows them that it isn’t.”
Govindaraju should know. Research he and his UB colleagues conducted in the 1990s helped the U.S. Postal Service establish the first machines that could read handwritten addresses, a feat that many at the time — especially in industry — said simply could not be done. In 1996, after years of research, the UB research enabled the USPS to be able to start machine-reading of handwritten addresses, boosting efficiency and saving the agency millions of dollars each year.
Govindaraju believes a similar success can occur with captchas. One of his doctoral students at UB has graduated and was hired by Yahoo! on the basis of his work developing “simulated” handwritten captchas.
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