When It Comes to the Web, the Robot Apocalypse Is Already Upon Us

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Cylons: In the 2004 reboot of Battle Star Galactica, they were robots (perhaps androids) that looked like humans, but lacking human limitations. Throughout the series, they were at war with the humans. And for most of the series, it appeared they were winning. We do not need science fiction writers to help us imagine this scenario. It is happening today. We just call them “bots”. At this very moment, they rule the Internet. And we humans are losing ground.

Robot Apocalypse

Rise of the Bots

In fact, you can’t be entirely certain that what you’re reading was not produced by a bot. They can perform a number of diverse tasks, including write news stories. According to popsci.com:

Over the past few years, several news organizations have used robot writers for some of their stories. Forbes uses algorithms from the startup Narrative Science to find and write short stories about companies whose stocks are doing well. The Los Angeles Times uses bots, developed by one of its own journalists, to publish immediate reports about area earthquakes and homicides. The AP will use business reports generated by a company called Automated Insights, Poynter reports.

But bots can do more than serve as unpaid journalists, a lot more. Twitter discovered that in the right context, bots can send your stock price into a nosedive. A VentureBeat headline declares that, “Twitter’s earnings leak is latest sign that ‘good’ bots are going too far”:

According to multiple news reports, this is how the results got out: NASDAQ OMX Group’s Shareholder.com accidentally posted the earnings release on Twitter’s publicly available investor-relations page for 45 seconds about an hour before the results were supposed to go public. Selerity, a New York company that offers a “real-time news and event detection platform” to investors, found the release – presumably through the use of automated web-scraping bots – and tweeted the information.

This is just a small peek into, what VentureBeat calls, “the shadowy world of bots.” The services of these bots are sold by companies with names like:

  • Selerity
  • 80legs
  • Connotate
  • Dataminr
  • Kapow

Verifying Humans

In Star Trek DS9, the shapeshifting race known as the Founders, infiltrated the Federation, replacing key figures in that, and other organizations. Both the Federation and Klingons devised invasive tests to verify a person’s identity. They had to be sure they were not dealing with a Founder in disguise.

That is what bots have driven us to do in real life. The dreaded CAPTCHA exists solely to verify that the visitor of the site is a human rather than a bot in disguise. Such schemes tend to frustrate and alienate humans while posing few issues for bots.

RevTap.net, a site that offers a human verification solution for CAPTCHA ads, claims that bots outnumber humans on the web by quite a lot. They claim that 60% – 90% of web traffic comes from bots. For advertisers, that is more than reason enough to demand some type of human verification system.

The Ethical Grey Area of Using Bots

Is a bot a tool for good guys or bad guys? Yes. Bots are like guns. It depends on by whom and for what they are being used. It also greatly depends on who is doing the judging. Perspective is everything. Admitting that the bot-detection business is polarized on the subject, the VentureBeat article goes on to say:

Bad bots are often associated with cybercriminals stealing data, identities, and intellectual property or initiating denial-of-service attacks. Good bots include Googlebot, Google’s web crawling bot that discovers new and updated pages to be added to the Google index.

Who is to say that the Google web-crawling bots are good? Many accused Google of scraping their sites for free content. Google was also accused of usurping the authority of writers. Would drone bots that flew around taking pictures of people in their houses through cracks in the blinds or curtains be equally welcome?

The piece went on to talk about cataloging 8 billion bots. That is just what they were able to track. No one knows the real number. There is definitely a reason to adopt human verification systems. Fortunately, there are companies achieving success in this area. But the fact that we have to do it means that we have already lost to the bots. Until we can clearly distinguish bots and humans on the web, I tend to believe that there are no good bots.

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