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AI startup Vicarious claims breakthrough following CAPTCHA test crack

Vicarious - Turing Test 1: Captcha from Vicarious Inc on Vimeo.

Californian startup Vicarious claims to have developed the first artificial intelligence software capable of reliably solving most modern CAPTCHAs.

The company was set up to solve the problem of how to build a computer that operates in a similar manner to the human brain.

CAPTCHA stands for "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart," but the latest findings have thrown its primary function into question.

The Vicarious AI achieves success rates of up to 90 per cent on a wide range of the most common CAPTCHAs, including those from Google, Yahoo, PayPal,, and others. For prevention purposes, a CAPTCHA scheme is considered broken if a programme's algorithm can solve it even one per cent of the time.

Vicarious claims that its model of brain-imitating computing outstrips the work of its giant corporate rivals in both power and energy-efficiency.

Vicarious co-founder D. Scott Phoenix argues: "Recent AI systems like IBM's Watson and deep neural networks rely on brute force: connecting massive computing power to massive datasets. This is the first time this distinctively human act of perception has been achieved, and it uses relatively minuscule amounts of data and computing power."

The human brain, as a computing unit, is amazingly energy-efficient. It can perform calculations extremely quickly, using only 20 watts or so of impulse energy a day. Even in the age of enormous supercomputers, the human brain is 10,000 times more dense and efficient than any machine. Creating a computer that mimicked the functions of the brain is the holy grail of modern computing, as it could allow a huge leap in data processing with much cooler and more efficient processing.

Phoenix claims: "By understanding the core algorithms that produce intelligence we can build computers that are 30 billion times faster and dramatically increase the rates of problem solving on behalf of humanity."

But Luis von Ahn of Carnegie Mellon University, a co-developer of CAPTCHAs and founder of tech startup reCAPTCHA, wasn't convinced about security concerns raised by the team's research.

He said that, "CAPTCHAs have been around since 2000, and since 2003 there have been stories every six months claiming that computers can break them," adding: "Even if it happens with letters, CAPTCHAs will use something else, like pictures."

One Detroit-based startup is already looking to replace CAPTCHAs with minigames. However, others have looked past the security issues to possible future applications, such as improved scanning ability in banks' automated cheque-readers, and the digitisation of books.

"We should be careful not to underestimate the significance of Vicarious crossing this milestone," said Facebook co-founder and board member Dustin Moskovitz. "This is an exciting time for artificial intelligence research, and they are at the forefront of building the first truly intelligent machines."

Vicarious is keeping its proprietary software and methods tightly under wraps, but its latest developments have shown that is one tech startup certainly worth watching.

Image: Flickr (Ars Electronica)