That might sound like a clickbait title, but it really isn't. You have with 99.9999% certainty helped Google in building self driving cars without knowing it.
Oh and probably helped Google with Optical Character Recognition (OCR), Google Images and Google Street Maps too (if you are as old as me 🤣)!
In the interests of speed, you are doing this every time you fill out a Captcha.
Now if you already knew that, before you leave, I would suggest you read the last couple of sections on why you should stop using Captcha on your site.
Did you ever wonder why Captchas ask you to identify cars, buses etc?
Most people would probably think that this is because they are things that are hard for a computer to identify automatically (and they are - kind of) and so it helps stop spam.
But the truth is that Google shows you whatever it's image recognition system is struggling to identify at the moment, and feeds the information you provide back into the system to improve it's accuracy.
This isn't something new in case your were wondering.
Google has been doing this since 2009 when they used Captcha to digitise printed materials.
They started with digitising the New York Times archives in 2009, before moving on to Google Books in 2011.
Captcha back then was two words that you had to type into a box, designed to be difficult for computers to recognise and stop bots from submitting the form.
The thing is, one of those words was also used to help Google's Optical Character Recognition (OCR) system when it couldn't identify a word correctly.
So for example, you would type "Woodward peacock" into the text box and the first word would be used to check that the computer had guessed the word correctly in the text it was scanning (or tell it what word it didn't understand).
If enough people agreed it would then add that to it's algorithm (if it guessed correctly) and use that to find further uses of the word "Woodward". If it guessed wrong it would also take that into account as something that needed further improvement (This is massively simplified).
Google wanted to identify pictures of cats.
The exact same principle applied, they asked you to identify pictures of cats to help train their model.
Obviously it wasn't just cats, it was everything. And so Google used Captcha to help identify pictures it wasn't sure about.
Once Google had nailed Optical Character Recognition and recognising images of cats and such, a new challenge appeared.
How do you recognise house numbers in Google Street View? These are massively complex images that may have random numbers anywhere (phone numbers on signage etc.)
Captcha to the rescue once again!
This time you would be presented with blurry pictures of numbers to identify. This helped Google identify house numbers on Street View and increase the accuracy of it's results.
Nowadays they are showing you pictures of buses, street signs, trains etc.
But as far as Google is concerned you are feeding it's training set and model with valuable information.
Their ML model isn't quite sure if that thing is a bus or a train, you complete the captcha and tell it what it is, the model learns and improves.
Ultimately you are partially responsible for teaching this model how to identify things.
Why would a model need to identify trains, buses, fire hydrants etc? So that when it is used to make decisions in a self driving car, the decisions are accurate!
Personally I think Captcha is one of the worst things that happened to the web.
Nowadays Captcha isn't very effective.
While these images may still be difficult for computers to identify, they are a lot easier than they used to be.
Google tells you "identify the buses in these pictures".
Feed what you are looking for (a bus) into a (relatively) basic Machine Learning algorithm and it would soon be able to pick those out when it knows what it is looking for.
For this reason captcha is not as effective as it once was.
And don't forget that you can pay about $5 to get actual humans to complete captchas for you. That is $5 for 1000 solves by the way, which isn't much money if someone really wants to spam a service!
They are still, to this day, one of the least accessible parts of the web and exclude people with disabilities on a daily basis.
I am still not sure how someone hasn't brought a lawsuit against Google for Captcha, but I wouldn't be surprised if it happens.
It gets even worse though, not only do Captchas offer little protection from spam and make your site less accessible, captchas also introduce a lot of friction into completing forms etc.
How many times have you faced a captcha and got annoyed?
Someone getting annoyed is the last thing you want if somebody is signing up to your newsletter or signing up to create an account.
We invest hours into optimising sales processes, trying to squeeze every last conversion out of visitors to our sites and then introduce an "are you a robot" roadblock that is significant enough to cost a sale.
I personally believe that if you are using Captcha you should stop.
Not because it is feeding our Alphabet (Google) overlord, as avoiding that is next to impossible!
No, you should ditch it as it is a massive accessibility problem still and will add an extra hurdle into any conversion process.
It is also pretty ineffectual nowadays, if somebody really wants to spam you they will find a way. You only have to look at the number of bot accounts on YouTube to realise Captcha doesn't stop bots!
What do you think? Should we still be using Captcha?
Let me know in the comments!
Just as an aside, I wonder how Captcha is legal?
I didn't agree for Google to use my image recognition abilities to train its algorithms? You would imagine there would be something in the law about that?
Anyway, I know nothing about that and the legal side of it, it was just a thought I had that perhaps someone can educate me on (is there something in the terms that site owners are meant to have on their site policies?)!
Starting in December my content is changing (for the better I hope!)
My new series on building perfect UI components is massive, and will be released on a Tuesday every week!
So be sure to follow me for more on that!
I hope you enjoyed this article!
Have a great weekend everybody!