Sunday, November 06, 2005

CAPTCHAs and googling (the pros and cons of smart machines)

Many thanks to Dave Koelle of Charles River Analytics for alerting me to the new "CAPTCHA" feature on blogger.com. For those of you unfamiliar with the term (as I was a couple days ago), CAPTCHA stands for "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart." And let me add that a "Turing test" is simply a way to tell computers and humans apart solely based on their behavior, not their body chemistry.

If you surf the net at all, you have probably already passed many CAPTCHAs by reading distorted text (as on the right) and re-typing it. Humans can read "gpidhr" easily but computers, including spam-bots, cannot. Hence I can re-open comments on Connectedness to everybody, provided you can make it past the CAPTCHA.

The really interesting thing about CAPTCHAs is that the boundary between human behavior and computer algorithm is in fact less of a boundary than it is an arms race. See the CAPTCHA project at Carnegie Mellon for one side of this arms race, and read this post by a certified spam-botter for a glimpse at the other side.

Which side of the arms race are you on? I guess most of us want to feel better than computers and protect ourselves from spam and so root for the home team. But hold that thought while you read this article, "Just Googling It Is Striking Fear Into Companies," from today's NY Times. The Internet now makes it so easy to find the best price, even Wal-Mart is nervous. Makes you want to cheer for the forces of the digital age, doesn't it?

As I reported here earlier, researchers are augmenting Google with social network methods, resulting in systems like "Outfoxed" that combine Google-rankings with personal factors-- like what do my trusted friends and colleagues have to say about my web query? That combination will be more than enough to keep the CAPTCHA crew working overtime for as long as they want to defend the ever-blurring boundary between human expertise and machine intelligence.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

November 6, 2005

Just Googling It Is Striking Fear Into Companies
By STEVE LOHR

Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, often intimidates its competitors and suppliers. Makers of goods from diapers to DVD's must cater to its whims. But there is one company that even Wal-Mart eyes warily these days: Google, a seven-year-old business in a seemingly distant industry.

"We watch Google very closely at Wal-Mart," said Jim Breyer, a member of Wal-Mart's board.

In Google, Wal-Mart sees both a technology pioneer and the seed of a threat, said Mr. Breyer, who is also a partner in a venture capital firm. The worry is that by making information available everywhere, Google might soon be able to tell Wal-Mart shoppers if better bargains are available nearby.

Wal-Mart is scarcely alone in its concern. As Google increasingly becomes the starting point for finding information and buying products and services, companies that even a year ago did not see themselves as competing with Google are beginning to view the company with some angst - mixed with admiration.

Google's recent moves have stirred concern in industries from book publishing to telecommunications. Businesses already feeling the Google effect include advertising, software and the news media. Apart from retailing, Google's disruptive presence may soon be felt in real estate and auto sales.

Google, the reigning giant of Web search, could extend its economic reach in the next few years as more people get high-speed Internet service and cellphones become full-fledged search tools, according to analysts. And ever-smarter software, they say, will cull and organize larger and larger digital storehouses of news, images, real estate listings and traffic reports, delivering results that are more like the advice of a trusted human expert.

Such advances, predicts Esther Dyson, a technology consultant, will bring "a huge reduction in inefficiency everywhere." That, in turn, would be an unsettling force for all sorts of industries and workers. But it would also reward consumers with lower prices and open up opportunities for new companies.

Google, then, may turn out to have a more far-reaching impact than earlier Web winners like Amazon and eBay. "Google is the realization of everything that we thought the Internet was going to be about but really wasn't until Google," said David B. Yoffie, a professor at Harvard Business School.

Google, to be sure, is but one company at the forefront of the continuing spread of Internet technology. It has many competitors, and it could stumble. In the search market alone, Google faces formidable rivals like Microsoft and Yahoo.

Microsoft, in particular, is pushing hard to catch Google in Internet search. "This is hyper-competition, make no mistake," said Bill Gates, Microsoft's chief executive. "The magic moment will come when our search is demonstrably better than Google's," he said, suggesting that this could happen in a year or so.

Still, apart from its front-runner status, Google is also remarkable for its pace of innovation and for how broadly it seems to interpret its mission to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."

The company's current lineup of offerings includes: software for searching personal computer files; an e-mail service; maps; satellite images; instant messaging; blogging tools; a service for posting and sharing digital photos; and specialized searches for news, video, shopping and local information. Google's most controversial venture, Google Print, is a project to copy and catalog millions of books; it faces lawsuits by some publishers and authors who say it violates copyright law.

Google, which tends to keep its plans secret, certainly has the wealth to fund ambitious ventures. Its revenues are growing by nearly 100 percent a year, and its profits are rising even faster. Its executives speak of the company's outlook only in broad strokes, but they suggest all but unlimited horizons. "We believe that search networks as industries remain in their nascent stages of growth with great forward potential," Eric Schmidt, Google's chief executive, told analysts last month.

Among the many projects being developed and debated inside Google is a real estate service, according to a person who has attended meetings on the proposal. The concept, the person said, would be to improve the capabilities of its satellite imaging, maps and local search and combine them with property listings.

The service, this person said, could make house hunting far more efficient, requiring potential buyers to visit fewer real estate agents and houses. If successful, it would be another magnet for the text ads that appear next to search results, the source of most of Google's revenue.

In telecommunications, the company has made a number of moves that have grabbed the attention of industry executives. It has been buying fiber-optic cable capacity in the United States and has invested in a company delivering high-speed Internet access over power lines. And it is participating in an experiment to provide free wireless Internet access in San Francisco.

That has led to speculation that the company wants to build a national free GoogleNet, paid for mostly by advertising. And Google executives seem to delight in dropping tantalizing, if vague, hints. "We focus on access to the information as much as the search itself because you need both," Mr. Schmidt said in an analysts' conference call last month.

Telecommunications executives are skeptical that Google could seriously eat into their business anytime soon. For one thing, they say, it will be difficult and expensive to build a national network. Still, they monitor Google's every move. "Google is certainly a potential competitor," said Bill Smith, the chief technology officer of BellSouth, the Atlanta-based regional phone company.

The No. 1 rival to phone companies in the Internet access business, Mr. Smith noted, is the cable television operators. "But do I discount Google? Absolutely not," he said. "You'd be a fool to do that these days."

In retailing, Google has no interest in stocking and selling merchandise. Its potential impact is more subtle, yet still significant. Every store is a collection of goods, some items more profitable than others. But the less-profitable items may bring people into stores, where they also buy the high-margin offerings - one shelf, in effect, subsidizes another.

Search engines, combined with other technologies, have the potential to drive comparison shopping down to the shelf-by-shelf level. Cellphone makers, for example, are looking at the concept of a "shopping phone" with a camera that can read product bar codes. The phone could connect to databases and search services and, aided by satellite technology, reveal that the flat-screen TV model in front of you is $200 cheaper at a store five miles away.

"We see this huge power moving to the edge - to consumers - in this Google environment," said Lou Steinberg, chief technology officer of Symbol Technologies, which supplies bar-code scanners to retailers.

Such services could lead to lower prices for consumers, but also relentless competition that threatens to break up existing businesses.

A newspaper or a magazine can be seen as a media store - a collection of news, entertainment and advertising delivered in a package. A tool like Google News allows a reader or an advertiser to pick and choose, breaking up the package by splitting the articles from the ads. And Google's ads, tucked to the side of its search-engine results, are often a more efficient sales generator than print ads.

"Google represents a challenge to newspapers, to be sure," said Gary B. Pruitt, chief executive of the McClatchy Company, a chain of 12 newspapers including The Star Tribune in Minneapolis and The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. "Google is attacking the advertising base of newspapers."

At the same time, Google and search technology are becoming crucial to the health of newspapers as more readers migrate to the Web. As one path to the future, Mr. Pruitt speaks of his newspapers prospering by tailoring search for local businesses, but also partnering with search engines to attract readers.

Within industries, the influence of Internet search is often uneven. For example, search engines are being embraced by car companies, yet they pose a challenge to car dealers.

George E. Murphy, senior vice president of global marketing for Chrysler, said Chrysler buys ads on 3,000 keywords a day on the big search sites: Google, Yahoo, Microsoft's MSN and AOL, whose search is supplied by Google. If a person types in one of those keywords, the search results are accompanied by a sponsored link to a Chrysler site.

Chrysler refines its approach based on what search words attract clicks, and studies its site traffic for clues on converting browsers to buyers. "We've got Ph.D.'s working on this," Mr. Murphy said. "The great thing about search is that you can do the math and follow the trail."

After following a link to a Chrysler Web site, a prospective buyer can configure a model, find a dealer and get a preliminary price. Only dealers can make final price quotes. Yet with more information on the Web, the direction of things is clear, in Mr. Murphy's view. "It will fundamentally change what the dealer does, because telling people about the vehicle won't add value for the customer anymore," he said. "If dealers don't change, they'll be dinosaurs."

Mr. Breyer, the Wal-Mart board member, watches Google closely in his job as managing partner of Accel Partners, a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley. These days, he advises startups to avoid a "collision course" with Google, just as he has long counseled fledgling companies to steer clear of Microsoft's stronghold in desktop software.

Internet search, like personal computing in its heyday, is a disruptive technology, he said, threatening traditional industries and opening the door to new ones. "We think there is plenty of opportunity for innovation in the Google economy," Mr. Breyer said.



Copyright 2005 The New York Times

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David Koelle said...

Glad you found that useful!

(Looks like bigdreamlife found it useful, too. Oh well!)