In 1950 Alan Turing, a logician and philosopher, proposed a test of a machine’s ability to imitate a human. His Turing test envisaged a human examiner evaluating a conversation with a hidden participant, and trying to deduce whether that participant is another human or an intelligent machine.

The Imitation Game, a film about Turing’s life starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and the cult-classic Ex Machina with Dómhnaill Gleeson, both explore the challenge.

But more frequently, the test is in reverse: a machine needs to try and work out whether it is dealing with a human or another machine pretending to be human.

One example is the airlines’ long-standing battle with “screen scrapers”. Screen scrapers are software programs deliberately written by one company – for example, a flight price comparison site – to extract data from another company, such as Aer Lingus or Ryanair, without that company’s permission, co-operation or perhaps even knowledge.

The computer presents a screen as usual but rather than being read by a human, the display is instead analysed by scraping software to extract the target values. Scraping is an efficient way to automatically harvest large amounts of information, particularly since the technology does not require the co-operation of the data owner. It is frequently commercially offensive and often illegal.

Defence

One way in which a machine can attempt to defend itself against screen scraping is through “captchas”. These are short challenge quizzes, which are intended to be quick for a human to solve but challenging for another computer. Examples include being able to decipher deliberately-distorted text, or to select key features within a blurred photograph.

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However, many people, including myself, find them highly irritating as they interrupt what you are about to do – reserve a ticket, book a place or fill in an online form.



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