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Company blocking the bots

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — Automated computer robots — or “bots” — are the scourge of the Internet. Spammers and malevolent virus-creators couldn’t live without them, as they allow a single human to wreak havoc exponentially by using the artificial intelligence of computers.

Multiply the equation by dozens, hundreds or even thousands of bad-intentioned humans, and you have real problems.

A local software services company is hoping to be the first to use open-source technology to help companies needing to put a stop to the bots.

Imulus, a three-person company a little more than a year old, recently began marketing “captchas” to potential clients that are targeted by bots. By doing so, the company hopes to expand its business and at least partially put the brakes on the more annoying aspects of artificial intelligence.

A captcha — which stands for “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart” — is a software program that is able to distinguish human activity on a Web site from automated, or computer, activity.

Yahoo and Carnegie Mellon University developed the concept of captchas in 2000, although a similar version, developed in part by AltaVista, was in use two years earlier.

The “Turing” in the captcha name is in tribute to mathematician Alan Turing, who wrote a paper in 1950 that discussed ways of telling the difference between human and artificial intelligence.

Captchas are used by Yahoo.com to make sure humans, not bots, set up Yahoo e-mail accounts. The last step in setting up an account requires you to perform a simple task: There is an image with a word inside of it, and directions tell you to “enter the word as it is shown in the box below.”

This is a captcha. Humans can easily read the word, type it in, and activate their new e-mail account, but bots will not be able to read the image, and thus can’t set up the account.

Without the captcha, spammers could use bots to set up an infinite number of e-mail accounts, which they could use to send out even more spam. But the captchas act as bot-busters.

Companies that conduct online polls and online shopping companies are others who would find captchas useful.

In selling captchas, Imulus will act as an application service provider for their clients. Big companies can set up their own captchas, but there are a lot of smaller ones that can’t afford to set it up for themselves, and these are Imulus’ target clients.

“What we’re doing is trying to expand on the technology. We’re trying to create new ways to use it,” said George Morris, Imulus’ client services director. “(Some companies) are out there using it, but no one’s out there trying to sell it, as far as I can tell.

“Our background is mainly Microsoft, so getting into the whole open source area is all new to us.”

Even without captchas, the three members of the Imulus team have been able to make a name for themselves in a highly competitive field. The three — Morris; Scott Hooten, the creative director; and John Skufca, technology director — met while they were all employed at Refinery, a Pennsylvania-based company that had opened a branch office in Boulder.

Offering its clients many of the services Imulus now offers, Refinery shut down operations here in late 2002 and the three co-workers decided to start their own team.

“We compliment each other so well — Scott is the designer and I do the programming, and George is kind of the point guard,” Skufca said. “It’s a good melding of experience and talent.”

Skufca was living in Colorado already when he got the job with Refinery, Morris was already at the company and moved here from Philadelphia to set up the Boulder office, and Hooten was living in California when he came here to take his Refinery job.

When the office here folded, Skufca said it didn’t take the three long to decide to launch their own business.

“We could see what others could do, and the fact that they were charging a good $120 to $150 an hour to support all the other people in their big business,” Skufca said. “We knew that we had the experience and talent to do what they could do, but because it was just the three of us we could charge a lot lower rate.”

So far, Imulus hasn’t sold its captcha service to any clients, but it has stirred up some interest since it began marketing the service a few months ago.

“We’re advertising it up on Google as a national service,” Morris said. “Most people that are seeking this kind of service are actively seeking us.”

One of his company’s potential captcha clients is in Brazil, Morris said.

Whether Imulus hits it big with captchas remains to be seen, but with the ever-increasing proliferation of spam, it’s a technology that more and more companies are bound to value.

“Robots can really present a lot of problems for (some) people,” Morris said, noting that, “Some people test their skills by writing robots just to cause trouble.”

And because they didn’t invent the technology — they simply found a way to use it effectively — Morris said Imulus feels a responsibility to help foster further bot-blocking innovation.

“Our standpoint on it is once we start making sales on the product we’re going to donate back into the (non-profit captcha) project,” Morris said.

Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 291, or by e-mail at tkindelspire@times-call.com.