Sanctioned by usage, bots are software, while robots are mechanic. But now we’re in the midst of mixing both terms, for AI products like Alexa, referring both to the Artificial Intelligent bot and the smart speaker product, so I tend to use the term “bot” to include both “bot” and “robot”. People want to know what bots could ultimately do and how the relationship between us would develop as the intelligence level of bots is boosting. In this paper, I’d like to make an investigation into the latest bots phenomena based on the general classification of smart bots in order to demonstrate that bots are no longer just serving as information providers or utility tools, and they are actually involving in an intimate and complex relationship with humans. I will also have some wild imagination for future human-bot symbiosis.
To provide a general understanding of how bots and robots have been developing these days, six kinds of smart bots or robots will be exemplified in an order of commonness. They’re web crawlers (like BingBot), chatbots (like Siri), social bots (like Tweet bots), pet bots (like Robotica), automation robots (like Amazon Kiva), cyborgs and game bots (like PUBG). I’m very aware that this classification is not rigorous because it’s a depiction of the bots in the latest decade or in a shorter period of time.
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1 Web crawlers are nesting a better “Web”, but also doing evil.
People don’t realize we use products executed by web crawling on a daily basis. Media representation seems to have confined our understanding of web crawler to personally used programs for data mining and profit. It’s surprising to learn that web crawling is actually a fundamental part of how search engines like Microsoft Bing work.
When an Internet user is searching on Google, the user is not actually searching on the web but searching the Google’s index of the web. Google creates its index of the web using software programs called spiders, which is a kind of web crawler. Spiders begin working by fetching a few websites, and they follow the links they could find on those pages to fetch more websites. And finally, a huge chunk of websites will be indexed for search. Some websites refuse to be visited by web crawlers and cannot be indexed, then they become so-called “deep web” that users can’t reach by the search engines.
Just as a library needs crews to collect and sort as many books as they can, a search engine, which can be considered a more advanced cloud version of “memex” , also needs workers to first fetch the contents of the web as the index. Web crawlers, in this context, are truly the extension of the human. They work in the so behind of senses that the optimism of searching results usually take the credit.
Recently, Bing is working on streamlining its search engine using BingBot, Bing’s web crawler.“To crawl or not to crawl, that is BingBot’s question” is the topic of a post on Bing blogs, which personifies the BingBot as a thinker. Would a search engine be a thinker one day, giving answers to algorism questions directly? The logic of search engine is clear but things don’t always go smoothly. The communication between a human and a search engine is sometimes abashed. The user may scroll down over 10 pages without finding any satisfying results or the searching results turn out not to be able to fill a page. For now, search engines are smart, to some degree, using location and your basic public information to filter the best-fit answer for you. How much privacy would you be willing to concede for a better information searching experience?
Cybersecurity has been a consequential issue since we’re inevitably using online services like Uber. Uber have our trip and payment information, like where we live, where we work, and our credit card information. If the database of these large companies is maliciously attacked or crawled, the consequence is more severe at a macro level than credit card theft. Mafengwo, the Chinese version of Trip Advisor, also a unicorn company, grows scale and gets investment by stealing more than 80% user-generated contents (UGC) from other travel-related rating websites, which means the investment end up no value to the economy and society. Another example is consumers are treated with inflation dynamics of pricing. If a user doesn’t use an incognito browser to visit retailer e-commerce like Costco, the price would go higher if the user revisits the good later.
Furthermore, how web crawler works also allows marketing to play tricks, giving chances to some cruel corporations, especially those hospitals without licenses. Death of Wei Zexi in 2014 was a tragedy that happened because his parents decided to trust a promoted result on the Chinese search engine Baidu about how to treat synovial sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. Baidu was accused of the crime because it didn’t mark ads on the searching results. Even if the ads are marked, the websites can still improve its ranking by some acceptable methods. So far we need to keep alert and critical about what web crawlers get and how search engine presents them to us, which is a little similar to real human social connection: never fully trust others.
It will be harder to keep privacy from crawler bots in the future when they get smarter. Any track left on the digital world would be collected by them and analyzed by data scientists working for big companies to trap you into consumption. “Incognito” won’t be the shelter for every online action. Even though a person is really cautious and not leaving any information online, he/she may be exposed by his/her connection in the real world, like being tagged in an event photo.
Given the next mainstreaming interface is still not clear, the text-input-based search engine won’t be easily abandoned even though the voice-interface-based chatbots are rapidly developing, which will be further demonstrated in the next chapter.
2 Social bots disclosure.
A recent drama happening in the music industry reveals the existence of the so-called “water army” in China. Kris Wu, who is superstar idol with millions of fans, released a new album called Antares. His fans decided to push this album to the top of iTunes chart, so they repeatedly registered new Apple ID, bought the album, and shared it on Twitter. This crazy movement led the ranking of the album exceeded the song, thank u, next by Ariana Grande, which caused thousands of music listener question: “Kris, who?” Actually, the fans have been doing these robotic actions, repeatedly posting and re-posting #KrisWu topic all the time on Weibo.
A popular meme showing a cat stepping on the keyboard has a caption saying: “You never know who’s behind the computer.” This used to describe the anonymity feature of the online environment, but now it happens also because well-designed bots are acting to socialized with human users.
Social bots are designed to pass themselves off as human social media users, obscuring their digital nature behind human profiles and in human-like interactions with users (Hwang et al., 2012)
The most common example is the Twitter bot, which refers to a program using Twitter API to control a Twitter account, doing tweeting, re-tweeting, liking, following, and unfollowing actions automatically. Since in fact a large amount of Twitter users only use Twitter to read contents generated by influential accounts instead of posting themselves. Their accounts may only appear re-tweeting and liking actions. So it’s hard to tell if it’s a bot account.
Weibo, a leading social media platform similar to Twitter in China, has 195 million daily active users by 2018 December and has been the 7th biggest social media platform in the world. Weibo’s hot post have always been very competitive for celebrities and influencers. To become shown on the first page, a post needs millions of likes and re-posts, which can be purchased from digital marketing companies, who owns countless zombie accounts and bot accounts to do the repetitive task. Most users despise this and call these celebrities, most of whom are idols, social media stars without matched capabilities. This kind of social media marketing is also accused of hurting the opportunities for the actors that audiences really appreciate.
Another case where we can find the involvement of bots is when a scam happens. Last year a famous male singer, Zhiqian Xue, was disclosed by his ex-girlfriend that he cheated on his wife. This scam gained so much attention that Weibo once got stuck by the huge traffic. Under the post of each side, we could see numerous comments like: “We trust you! Don’t let rumors spread!”, or many other copy-pasted supporting comments, which is obviously generated by roughly programmed bots. The celebrities really care about the comments under their post, usually deleting negative ones. It’s worth consideration as a Chinese feature, related to Chinese Mianzi culture.
However, when the bot accounts interact with normal individual users, these users will feel being paid attention to and improve the activeness on this platform. Social bots are now able to ask questions in comments by capturing the keywords. For example, under a post related to travel, it would comment like: “Great! Could you please tell me more about the city?”Under a post about cosmetics, it may ask: “May I ask where you bought them?” These open questions are so smart that it’s hard for a user to tell if they’re bots even they may have some suspect.
This sort of bots is assigned the mission to create a sense of jollification given people tend to follow the mainstream. If we look at the noted live streaming platform in China, like Douyu, rooms listed on the homepage usually has over 100,000 audiences. It’s insane to have over 100,000 people watching a pretty girl chatting and singing at the same time. On the screen, there’re dense floating gifts and comments dropped by the audiences. But the fact is that more than 70% of the audiences are bots, who can automatically send hearts to the host. The real audiences need the illusion that there’re tons of people with them doing this meaningless thing.
So far it’s rather clear what’s the two main intentions of social bots. Currently, in the modern social platform, social bots are used on purpose to create hotspots, which equals to commercial values on the one hand, and to improve user’s sense of immersing and involvement, on the other. Would a human user and a bot become friends? A Weibo bot account posts every day just repeating one word “hu”, the sound of wind blowing in Chinese. The number of likes and comments of its every post could more or less prove that some users regularly visit this bot account and say something to it. Isn’t it a sort of friendship?
3 Chatbots will keep being dumb on purpose.
There’s a sharp difference between information provider chatbots and character chatbots. The former kind is a commonplace in our daily life, like Apple Siri, Amazon Alexa, Microsoft Cortana. In this paper, we take Siri as an example to dive deeper into voice virtual assistant bots.
Why Siri is still so silly and dumb in 2018? It’s unable to recognize bilingual input, unable to accomplish my command of “sending this video to my mom”, not to mention some whimsicality like “Hey Siri, could you please be the moderator of our werewolf game?” In fact, it is the Natural Language Processing (NLP) technology that has been improving over the years, with Machine Learning and Deep Learning technologies applied. In a word, Siri does much better in understanding you. But as an information provider, Siri is carefully restrained, not open to self-training or learning. It always leads user commands to its spectrum of duty using sentences like: “Sorry, I don’t know about A, but you can try asking me about B.” It’s Siri’s duty to provide unambiguous and accurate information seriously.
Character bots are totally different. Most of them are aimed to fool people into blurring the boundary between machine and human to show off how intelligent they are. In the MrMind case, however, even though MrMind clearly declared it’s a machine, some users still couldn’t help having a feeling for MrMind in the blurring testing process because users were questioned and forced to reflect on themselves. There is a phycology theory to explain for this phenomenon called ELIZA effect, which is defined as the tendency to unconsciously assume computer behaviors are analogous to human behavior and to read far more understanding than is warranted into the strings of symbols strung together by programs. This theory counts for a series of human-bots emotional connection that will be demonstrated later.
ELIZA is actually the first chatbot created by the MIT CS lab positioned as a therapist. Currently, we are totally able to train a bot to learn all the words a person has said during his/her life and speak for him/her in his/her characteristics.
4 It’s easy to be trapped into an emotional connection with bots.
What is the moral for bots? Going through all the bots in the movie and TV series, the answer would be: bots want to be cute, or as much close to human as possible. They want people to treat them as pets or friends and ignore the unnatural part of them. They want to be adored.
Sony sells a product called Aibo pet robot, which is a family robot dog that simulates all the features of a pet dog. It has sensors over its body so it can respond to owners’ action like patting and touching. In a report of the New York Times, an old Japanese couple actually are raising this electronic dog as a real family member. In Japan, an aging society, a pet is the closest thing to the companion. For some reason, some families choose a robotic dog, which is a good choice considering the interior space of the Japanese family is usually very small. People may think an e-dog is not as vulnerable as a real one made of flesh or costs less since it doesn’t eat or get sick.
Nevertheless, with version upgrading, a company would finally stop manufacturing replacement parts for the old version of robots, which means mechanic robots all have a limited length of life just like the natural death of humans. Here arises an ethical issue: will the owner accept a new robotic dog with the memory of his/her old dog embedded? Is it the same dog? Alien: Covenant (2016), and I, Robot (2004) gave a possibility: the newest version of robots tend to take control of their robot community, dismantling the old version ones since they’re smarter and stronger. But my opinion tends to be considering the dog survives after changing its body because information (data) will weigh more than materiality, and become the most part of an entity in the future.
It’s reasonable for future people to have an emotional connection with bots. This emotion could be love, friendship, family companion, spectatorship or hate, depending on human hosts’ demands. For human relationships, we don’t even require the person we’re connecting with to be present with us. Communication through media like text and voice messages, video calls is good enough to maintain a close relationship so it’s totally possible to have a crush on a bot entity. In 2018, a romance simulation game called Love and Producer has millions of women players hooked since its launch in December 2017. As a dating game, the user is expecting to develop romantic relationships with four charismatic boys of various backgrounds and characteristics. Young women were crazy about these boys and called them “my husband” in public. Technically the roles in this game can be called bots because they’re programmed but way far from being intelligent. Even though users don’t have the freedom to develop the exclusive plot with their boys, these characters are young women’s emotional sustenance. On the date of Zeyan Li’s asserted birthday, girl players in Chongqing rented the huge LED facade screen of the tallest building in the city to print “Zeyan Li Happy Birthday”. This none-with-marketing action reveals how a group of users actually treat this game: they have a boyfriend in their phone. They text and call their boyfriends every day, spend money in the game to carefully maintain their romantic relationship.
I want to proceed this topic a bit further, imaging wildly about our future. What if some families decided to raise robotic-kid? They could choose the physical appearance of their children and control the initial “setting” of them, for example, having them to be more intelligent in art but less capable to do sports. These “kids” also had the ability to learn and they lived their own life. This could happen if the background setting of Handmaids’ Tale came true but the story developed in a Utopia way. The default gender of a bot should be “male”, for it cannot give birth to offspring. For bots, inheriting is more appropriate than breeding because it’s data that really determine an entity.
The sociology behavior was traditionally considered only happening in the human world, but Actor-Network Theory (ANT) posits that everything in the social and natural world exists in dynamic networks of relationship. From the perspective of machine or bot entities, they will keep in lack of empathy for another long period so we might be in trouble with being stuck with our magical and uncontrolled attitude towards bots.
5 Humans and bots team up.
The debate over are robots taking over our jobs has never stopped. The largest online retailer Amazon has been pushing forward with robots in its warehouses and claims that workers find new roles and positions. For example, a worker who used to do the stacking work, now only has to watch the mechanic arms to stack bins on top of a pile. The worker is released from repetitive physical labor and has picked new skills of manipulating machines. Amazon used to be blamed for destroying the traditional the traditional retailers and now is blamed for taking away worker’s jobs, which’s not acceptable by the right-wing party.
Amazon Robotics, also known as Kiva, is an automation service provided for e-commerce. In the warehouse operated by Amazon Robotics System, goods are stored in portable storage units. When an order is placed, the closest bot will go and retrieve it through sliding underneath the target bin, lifting it up from the ground and sending the good to packaging location to check out. Computer vision technique is used for the bots to drive and avoid the collision.
Automation is inevitable because it improves the profit for the big companies, but the relationship between human workers and bots will reach an impasse in the predictable future. The monopoly of advanced robotic labor earn huge profit and causes a large number of workers to lose their jobs, which is immoral and toxic to economic society. The labor movement might happen in a very close future to protest the robotic invasion.
As a designer who has been into parametric design, I enrolled in the Creative Coding course this semester and had a better understanding of software program, which enlightened me to think about humans and bots teaming up in a creative way. We, designers, can come up with “creation algorithms”, like a sequence of how a drawing is painted, but concede some control to the bots to surprise us, especially given the computer has a way better capability to conduct a “random” function. At one extreme will be the case where human artist draws a very rough sketch of his/her idea, and the bots will do the rest of the work, based on the style and intention of the artist.
Efficiency is good for all, so I think it may be time to rein our notions of roles that bots are appropriate to play in the labor market.
6 Cyborg reality
In this chapter, the idea of information over materiality is going to be reinforced, in order to lay a foundation for my imagination of future human-bots symbiosis relations.
People are running a second or even third identity on social media platforms. On LinkedIn, we build work connections by presenting our academic projects and sharing knowledgeable posts. We expose our wild inside on Instagram Stories, which won’t leave a history that can be traced which makes us feel secure. We post travel photos with the location in WeChat because it’s a place to tell your families and friends that I’m doing fine. A person who uses different social media platforms are actually operating a very machine-like action: system partitioning and classifying files and data in our memory. This is a manual information transition between living organism to the electrical machine or database in the current stage.
As is imagined, the memory of humans will be automatically generated as digital files, encoding all the senses, indexed for the retrieve. Each human made of flesh will be an owner of a digital entity, which is also able to conduct impact on this world by controlling bots. The digital entity of individuals may evolve faster because it has access to the cloud computing, which is way faster and more powerful than the human brain, and also it can be programmed and revised if anything goes wrong.
Living, digital and mechanical systems are like three part of a whole entity in the future. Confronted with the growingly severe living surrounding, a person can either choose to strengthen his body with a mechanical system like how astronauts stay alive in the space or choose to make digital life to be his/her “real life”.
7 We’re approaching the Westworld
“I ache in the place I used to play.”
Although science fiction deals in imaginary plots, it is a cultural product that reflects attitudes and ideas regarding technology (Haigh, 2011). Westworld (TV Series) provides a brand new perspective into the relationship between human and humanoid bots, which is depicted as guests and hosts. The Westworld can meet the rich human guests’ wildest fantasies, like hunting humans, murdering and etc. Hosts (bots) are programmed to be sentient but unable to hurt humans. The Westworld is not only another AI’s apocalyptic work for humans, but also a television work that reflects the culture of today’s sandbox games. Just like “GTA”, the highly realistic virtual reality world created by the creators. The motivation for “players” to enter the world is to satisfy curiosity and then enjoy the freedom that cannot be realized in the real world. This is why tourists on the train would say that they first time came to see the scenery, and the second time they came to do evil.
Those of us who have been immersed in sandbox games for a long time are all the same. The first time I entered the wilderness in The Red Dead, I watched the horse-drawn whip and looked at the scenery in the west. After been familiar with the whole game and then I began to destroy the world to seek the only remaining freshness of the game, such as throwing a passerby on the railway ruthlessly.
MrMind asks: “Do you feel that you are superior or inferior to machines?” Most visitors assert superiority. One unique reason says: “Because my life is valuable “ which makes me fall in deep thought. Is “having a life” a critical feature that human cannot concede to a machine? In Westworld, bots have their humanoid lives. Although their memory, relationship, experience, and behaviors are all programmed, I cannot prove that human memory is not a set of data, which may also be programmed or edited one day. Besides, superior intelligence and emotional intelligence also count for most of the superiority. In the current stage, most AI bots are still dumb, creativeness and stupid, no wonder people won’t be willing to be compared to machines, even though Alpha Go have won and AI-generated painting have come to auction.
Would bots be finally intelligent? I have a strong temptation to answer with a resounding yes given the very accidental probability of the emergence of intelligent creatures on the Earth. Then I did find a strong support from scientist Alex Wissner-Gross, who announced an equation for intelligence, F = T ∇ Sτ. This equation reveals that the future freedom of action is trying to be maximized. In another word, intelligence intends to keep options open. This is exactly how the cosmos works under the entropy rule. Wissner-Gross developed a software engine called Entropica, designed to maximize the production of long-term entropy of any system. It’s remarkable to see how humanoid it could be. For example, it could balance a pole using a cart, which just like a human normally don’t want the pole to lose its balance and flip over. At this point, the bot seems to have its mind and intention. In short, following the equation, the bot spontaneously executes human cognitive behavior.
Things get essentially changed when the game Player’s Battleground went virus and a mobile version was developed. Unlike the video games ran on PC, mobile gamers have a feature in common which is being more impatient. Given the rule of the game is having 100 players fighting each other in the battleground, the game only starts after there’re 100 players joined, which sometimes takes a really long time. So the mobile game adds a couple of game bots in. They are simulating human players, searching supplies, shooting at other players, hiding themselves when being attacked. Even though I know it’s meaningless to kill bots, I still feel satisfied after killing them because I also value my average killing number.
We haven’t been taking it seriously. Bots used to be our tools, now are our assistants, would be our friends or lovers in the close future. But people haven’t been conscious enough to realize that we get flattered, entertained and satisfied by game bots. It’s a concerning start of one kind of human-bot relations.
In a word, we have been encountering the situation where we rely deeply on crawler bots, being fooled by social bots, expecting more from a chatbot, dreaming about us to be cyborg Iron Man one day, and innocently slaughter game bots. Our relations with bots are shifting and blending. I hope fear would be the last thing that would occur in the feelings of relations.
Robert W. Gehl, Socialbots and their friends: digital media and the automation of sociality. Taylor & Francis, 2016.
Hayles, Katherine, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature,
and Informatics. The University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Bush, Vannevar, AS WE MAY THINK, The Atlantic Monthly, 1945
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