Startup Defeats the Captcha, Wins One for the Machines

Startup Defeats the Captcha, Wins One for the Machines
Vicarious, an artificial intelligence startup backed by Peter Thiel, says it's got more breakthroughs where that came from (Photograph by Ticketmaster/AP Photo)
Photograph by Ticketmaster/AP Photo

Just about the best test that we’ve devised to date to tell the difference between humans and machines online is the Captcha. That’s the name for that quiz on websites where you have to decipher a set of curvy, kind-of-blurred letters and type them into a box. Good news for the countless users who find the process beyond frustrating: Captcha’s days may be numbered.

The artificial intelligence startup Vicarious has developed software that can decipher a Captcha about 90 percent of the time on sites like Google, PayPal, and Yahoo. Vicarious has its algorithms scour a Web page and “read” it in a similar fashion to the way a human eye would. “An image is represented in the computer as a bunch of pixels with colors that are numbered on a scale of zero to 256,” says Dileep George, one of the Vicarious co-founders. “256 is white and zero is black. This is what our system uses to then spit out a semantic understanding of those pixels.”

Vicarious plans to keep the technology behind its Captcha defeater secret for now. The company is basically a six-person research shop. George and his partners maintain that traditional AI work is in a rut, making incremental advances to known algorithms. The Vicarious crew claim to be approaching problems from a fresh angle and trying to teach computers to think more like people do. “We don’t want to go in the direction of big data and tons of computation,” says George. “We want our systems to learn very quickly. Our goal is to create intelligence.”

The usual crew of Silicon Valley’s more eclectic investors—Peter Thiel (Founders Fund), Dustin Moskovitz (Facebook co-founder), and Joe Lonsdale (Palantir and Addepar co-founder)—have put more than $15 million into Vicarious and allowed the team to pursue their long-term vision. “We are able to look 10 to 15 years out,” says D. Scott Phoenix, another Vicarious co-founder. “We are free to step off the treadmill and see what needs to be done to build intelligent machines.”

Thiel, in particular, has a habit of investing in big-talking, big-dreaming startups. Some of them—for example, Facebook and Palantir—work out great. Others, such as Halcyon Molecular, a gene sequencing startup that chased a cure for death, flame out spectacularly. Vicarious certainly fits this high-risk pattern and has the unbridled ambition of a Thiel Joint.

Officially, Vicarious is a Flexible Purpose Corporation, a designation that California allows for companies that do not have chasing profits as their main motive. As such, Vicarious does not have anything to sell today and remains mum about when it might bring a product based on its technology to market.

While Vicarious does not plan to commercialize its technology any day soon, you can see where it might go. Factories today use basic computer vision to check on product quality and could certainly use some next-generation technology to do this better. Robots, too, could benefit from a better set of eyes. “You could take a picture of a dinner plate to see how many calories it has or use this to look at an X-ray to see whether or not there’s cancer,” says Phoenix.

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