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By Greg Cunningham
owner of Tech-hachapi 

Not a robot, slow phones

Tech Talk


February 18, 2023

Greg Cunningham.

There you are, entering your information into a form on a website when suddenly you have to check a box that reads, "I am not a robot," and then there's a visual thing you need to do to continue. So, what's that all about?

Computer programs are great at doing repetitive tasks quickly, even robotically. Indeed, we have specialized computer programs called bots, which is short for robots, that are great at doing repetitive tasks quickly. These bots are so good that websites need a way to be positive that it's a person and not a bot that creates an account, orders symphony tickets, or posts a comment on their website.

Way back in the 1990s, they invented CAPTCHA to separate people from bots. CAPTCHA is, like many things in technology, an initialism. Oh, you thought it was an acronym? An initialism is an abbreviation that uses the first letter of each word in the phrase. And yes, some initialisms are acronyms. For example, CAPTCHA stands for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.

The Turing Test part of CAPTCHA refers to a test devised by the mathematician Alan Turing in 1950. The Turing Test tests a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. So, ironically, here we're trying to prove we're human and not a bot.

CAPTCHAs started as images with letters, numbers, or words written in wavy fonts on weird backgrounds to fool computer vision systems. And yes, bots can have "eyes" of a sort, at least a camera that provides visual input.

In 2007, we got a system called reCAPTCHA that used all those "I'm not a robot" tests to do some actual work, like helping to digitize books by training automated learning systems on different fonts. In 2009 Google became the new owner of reCAPTCHA and started using it to help decode Google Street View addresses. Today, the "I'm not a robot" test helps train machine learning models to recognize objects like crosswalks, stairs, bicycles, and such. Eventually, all this data may help self-driving cars navigate the real world, although Google claims they're not using it this way. At least it wasn't back in 2019 when Google made that statement.

Slow phones

Remember when you first got your current phone? How fast it felt? At least compared to your old phone. So why do phones get slower as they age? There are two main reasons: 1) software and 2) you.

When you bought your phone, it came with an operating system optimized for the hardware on that phone. Unfortunately, as the years (months?) go by, manufacturers optimize updates to the operating system for the hardware in newer phones, so your phone slowly becomes unoptimized for your hardware. However, updates can also add new apps and capabilities to your phone that are optimized for the hardware found in more recent phones. And it's not just the operating system getting updated on your phone; the apps and games on your phone get updates, too. And manufacturers may also optimize these updates for newer hardware.

You slow down your phone, too. As you download new apps and games and your cloud-backed-up photos and videos to your phone, that also slows it down a bit.

Shopping or a cast

The retail price of a new smartphone these days is ridiculous. If I fall and hear something crack, I hope it's a bone.

Do you have a computer or technology question? Greg Cunningham has provided Tehachapi with on-site PC and network services since 2007. Email Greg at


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