A Textual CAPTCHA in Lisp

Playing with the first in a (hopefully ongoing) series of Common Lisp Quizzes, I wrote a simple text-only CAPTCHA (completely automated public Turing test to tell computers and humans apart). My solution and others are posted at CL Quiz #1.

CAPTCHA> (generate-captcha)
"You started out with forty-nine Lisp Machines. Not through any fault of your own, you lost three Lisp Machines. Years later, when you were reflecting on this whole sordid process, you counted up how many you had. What was the result?"

As per the suggestion in the quiz problem, I used CL’s format "~r" to make up simple arithmetic questions. To make it harder for a computer to parse, I embedded the questions in complex sentences selected from stored lists. The results are at least hard enough that the Google Calculator can’t solve them, but even a modest AI with language capabilities would likely have little trouble.

This and discussions on the CL-Quiz mailing list got me thinking about CAPTCHAs in general. They’re really an unwinnable proposition. In order to check that a given answer is correct, it must be possible to solve the test algorithmically. Given that, it’s only a matter of time before someone writes an algorithm to solve it. Most CAPTCHAs in common use rely on adding enough “noise” to the image, sound, or text to confuse a computer, but as computer pattern-recognition abilities get better, the necessary noise level reaches the point that humans get confused as well.