Sign up for our daily briefing

Make your busy days simpler with Axios AM/PM. Catch up on what's new and why it matters in just 5 minutes.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on the day's biggest business stories

Subscribe to Axios Closer for insights into the day’s business news and trends and why they matter

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Stay on top of the latest market trends

Subscribe to Axios Markets for the latest market trends and economic insights. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Sports news worthy of your time

Binge on the stats and stories that drive the sports world with Axios Sports. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Tech news worthy of your time

Get our smart take on technology from the Valley and D.C. with Axios Login. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Get the inside stories

Get an insider's guide to the new White House with Axios Sneak Peek. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Denver news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Denver

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Des Moines news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Des Moines

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Twin Cities news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Twin Cities

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Tampa Bay news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Tampa Bay

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Charlotte news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Charlotte

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

One of the ways computers distinguish humans from robots is with CAPTCHAs — that little box with a weird letter combination at the bottom of your online ticket or other transaction. Researchers report they've now trained a computer to solve CAPTCHAs using less data than other AIs by borrowing the human brain's approach to the problem.

The big picture: This isn't about cracking CAPTCHAs, but a much larger effort to create AIs that use principles of the human brain to solve visual tasks — like recognizing a cat from a dog with not a lot of examples to go on. AI pioneer Geoffrey Hinton recently told Axios he suspects the current approach of giving computers lots of rules and labeled data is limited, and that researchers should look again to the brain to make material advances in AI. This is a step in that direction.

What's new: Computers can solve these tests if given enough examples of the images. (Google and others have retired text-based CAPTCHAs for that reason.) But if the letters are crowded together or the CAPTCHA changes in another way, the AI may need to be retrained to spot the variations, whereas humans can easily recognize a letter in many forms.

"There is a wide variety of things that a human would call an 'A' and understand as an 'A' that is very hard to get into a computer." — Dileep George, who led the research at San Francisco Bay-area AI company Vicarious.

Instead of feeding the algorithm a large dataset containing images of the many variations of CAPTCHA letters, George and his colleagues gave the computer examples of letters that it then broke into parts — the intersections of lines and different contours that make up the shapes of A and N, for example — like the human brain does. Knowing the parts and how they together construct letters, the researchers' model could use those features to identify letter variations it hadn't seen before.

The results:

  • Their model could solve reCAPTCHAs with 66.6% accuracy using five training examples per character. Humans do it with 87.4% accuracy. The accuracy for other deep learning approaches is higher than the new approach but the researchers say theirs is more robust because it models the actual shape of the letter and can therefore generalize to recognize other letters it hasn't seen before.
  • They tested the model's ability to recognize text in real world images compared to a deep learning approach. For about the same or higher accuracy, the deep learning algorithm used roughly 300 times more data.
  • The new algorithm could take a character and create plausible variations of it. "I'm not sure that those examples would be indistinguishable from examples produced by people but it is definitely grasping some important structure in what makes up those concepts of those letters," says NYU's Brenden Lake, who works on similar problems but wasn't involved in this research.

What it means: The researchers hope it sparks a broader return to neuroscience for some AI inspiration.

"Your brain is not an unstructured neural network. Genetics wires some amount of structure into it," says George. "Biology has put a scaffolding in our brain that is suitable for working with this world. It makes the brain learn quickly in our world. So we copy those insights from nature and put it in our model. Similar things can be done in neural networks."

CAPTCHAs are just one benchmark for AI. "As a problem in itself if you have an algorithm that can break CAPTCHAs that's great but it's an application that not everybody needs. Whereas object recognition is something that our minds do every second of every day and it is also a core application domain for technology companies and in products that we use and so on," says Lake.

The big question: Cognitive neuroscientist and philosopher Douglas Hofstadter has said that the toughest challenge for AI researchers is to answer the question: What are the letters 'A' and 'I'?

"Building systems modeled after the brain is a long-term process and we have done only part of the work. Much more work remains to be done if we are to scale these systems to do things that deep learning is good at doing now," says George.

Go deeper

100+ corporate executives consider freezing donations over laws curbing voting access

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

More than 100 corporate executives and leaders gathered on a Zoom call Saturday to discuss ways to combat controversial voting bills being considered in states across the country that would restrict voting access, per the Washington Post.

Why it matters: American corporations flexed their advocacy muscles earlier this month when more than 100 companies signaled their opposition to Georgia's new voting law, inciting the wrath of GOP leaders, including former President Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

7 hours ago - World

Defense Sec. Austin stresses U.S. commitment to Israel's security amid growing Iran tensions

Issei Kato/Reuters/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin arrived for his first visit in Jerusalem amid nuclear talks in Vienna and growing tensions between Israel and Iran.

Why it matters: Austin met his counterpart Benny Gantz and will meet later with Prime Minister Netanyahu to discuss Iran and regional security issues.

"I was horrified": Leaders respond to footage of Black and Latino Army officer threatened at traffic stop

An Army officer is suing two Virginia police officers after he said they drew their guns and pepper-sprayed him during a traffic stop in December.

Why it matters: Footage of the incident has drawn widespread criticism from leaders and groups in the state. Caron Nazario, who is Black and Latino, is heard saying “I’m honestly afraid to get out," to which a police officer responds “Yeah, you should be," in a video from a body-worn camera.