Invasion of the friendly bots5/11/2016
Cleaning up one’s image can be difficult to do. Being branded a “cheater,” a dangerous place or “not cool” can be a death sentence in the public eye. In the 1970s, New York City was known as a cesspool of moral decrepitude and crime. The New England Patriots have been battling the label of cheaters for 10 years now, and Donny Osmond has easily been the lamest man in music since the release of “Puppy Love” in the early 1970s. New York cleaned up its act, the Patriots have ignored the cheater cries, and Donny Osmond is just too far gone to turn it around. Of course, there is another way to right a drifting reputation, and that’s to make a splash before too many people know about your misdeeds. In technology, “bots” find themselves on a serious course-correcting path to public acceptance.
For years now, bots — or programs with the sole purpose of replicating human interactions and decision-making — have been a serious menace to the casual computing world. If hackers wanted to take down a website, a bot could be programmed to overload a server. If foreign governments wanted to crack into a military computer system or steal corporate secrets, bots could be designed to brute force their way through software weaknesses. If you surfed your way to some nefarious website or downloaded an attachment you probably shouldn’t have, there’s a good chance the virus you encountered could have been a bot that copied your information and sent it to a unscrupulous programmer waiting for passwords and personal data. Put simply, bots were evil.
But nobody outside of programmers and those with an above-average techno-literacy understood what bots were. The closest the general public has come to grasping what bots were was on Twitter. Due to its easy sign-up process, a great deal of Twitter’s users are bots — programs designed to mimic human interaction. Some of these Twitterbots simply follow language looking for hashtags and tweets related to a certain topic. Once found, these bots favorite, retweet and follow just to heighten that topic’s visibility. Other bots are programmed to create scores of fake users simply to pump an account’s follow numbers, making them looking far more popular than they actually are.
At first, bots were hidden behind the publically-held disguise of viruses, then some encountered them as a nuisance through social networking. But today they’re encountering an impressive makeover by most of the biggest power brokers in tech. From Microsoft, to Facebook, to Google, everybody wants in on this piece of technology that can systematically assist users in customer service, product discovery and purchasing while managing vast amounts of communications and electronically held data. Remember in the 1990s when computerized customer service was introduced on troubleshooting hotlines? Well, these crude systems were the shameful first iteration of bots. After some major overhauling, backed by legions of data farms, bots can guide web users through inquiries and data discovery without the user realizing he or she is conversing with a computer program, not an extremely helpful person.
The ultimate goal for these companies is to simplify the computing experience for users so they’ll stay committed to each ecosystem. If Gmail started analyzing your communication style and anticipated your needs, a bot might remind you to include certain remarks, attachments or links and suggest extra recipients to your emails. Facebook might see you’re looking at a friend’s picture with someone you don’t know tagged, and a bot would sideload that other person’s profile for easy access.
Setting aside Microsoft’s most recent attempt at publically releasing a Twitterbot — @TayTweets ended with the program becoming a sex-crazed bigot — bots are the future. These programs will learn from us and know what we want before we want it. It’s creepy, and as these programs become even more ubiquitous, privacy will become even more of an issue. So, ready or not, get ready to accidentally create your digital replica. Welcome to the future. We know exactly what you’re looking for. CV
Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. Follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb.