What are bots? How are bots they made? Where do we encounter bots in every day life? How can we use bots to our benefit? What are the practical and moral hazards of using bots?
CYBERnyama begins its investigation into the world of bots. In the first episode of the investigation (CYBERnyama04), we will speak to Tim Groβmann (@timgrossmann), the creator of an Instagram automation tool called InstaPy – InstaPy provides the ingredients that can be used to construct an Instagram bot.
Throughout history there are mythological accounts of various mechanical or automated machines: the servants of the Roman god Vulcan (or the Greek god Hephaestus, the golems of Jewish folklore created from dirt or clay, the mechanical humanoids described in 3rd Century Chinese texts, and the mechanical creatures described in 11th Century texts that protected relics of the Buddha from the Romans. One of the aspirations that humanity has placed on robots has been the hope that they can increase our quality of life by performing work that humans would rather not perform, due to the hazards or effort involved, or the monotony or pain of the tasks. The word robot was first used in a 1920 science fiction play by Czech writer Karel Čapek called Rossum’s Universal Robots (Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti) or R.U.R. In Czech “robota” – means servitude or forced labour.
In culture humans have projected their hopes and aspirations as well as their fears on the idea of automated machines. They have been envisaged as loyal and faithful, even loveable servants like R2D2 and C3P0 of Star Wars. It was hoped that through this promised of automated labour, humans could have more time for leisure and quality of life, including for the pursuit of knowledge and the creation of culture. Do they really positively affect our quality of life and quality of work?
Robots have also captivated the fears of humanity – the golems of Jewish Folklore, like the Terminators of Skynet, and the replicants of the blade runner movies often turned on the very masters and communities they were created to protect and serve. The Robots of R.U.R. did not take long to foment a revolution that almost annihilated mankind.
A bot, like a robot, is an automated agent that performs tasks that human would rather not, or cannot perform. A computer science term that closely approximates the concept of a bot is a software agent. A software agent is a computer programme that can automatically and contextually acts on behalf of users in a variety of applications. There are many types of bots that can act on behalf of users accounts; such as shopping bots that retrieve information about good and services and buy them at set prices, trading bots for commodities and financial products, and bots for monitoring, scraping and mining data of the web – an essential component of search engine infrastructures. What type of world is being created as more and more aspects of our lives become governed by or affected by automated software?
Just as humans projected their aspirations on robots, they have also projected their aspirations on software, the internet and bots. The following poem by Richard Brautigan in 1967, much influenced by the freedom of the hippie era, projects much optimism on what he foresees as a synergistic relationship between mankind and computers in the future. In his poem, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace:
I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
like pure water
touching clear sky.
I like to think
(right now please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.
The poem is also read by Brautigan and accompanied by visuals in the Adam Curtis documentary by the same title.
Brautigan may have been a bit optimistic to say the least. The convergence of social media and automation has meant that fake acounts or “sockpuppet” accounts can be automated and coordinated to create the appearance of grassroots movements – an activity called astroturfing. These technologies have been used in the last US election in what some say has been the first time foreign actors have used social media to swing an election.
Whether bots influenced the US election is perhaps a question that misses the point. Bots are an inevitable part of elections in our current age. They are inevitable at this current conjecture because they are a part of the fabric of cyberspace and thus the fabric of social space. Bots will and do affect elections, business, the economy, relationships, and friendships for our foreseeable collective future. Whether we like it or not bots are an integral part of the fabric of cyberspace, woven into our social space. It is thus essential that we are aware of bots, were they exist, their pros and cons, and how they affect peoples lives in very real ways. In doing so we can know the challenges and pitfalls of their use, when to use them, and when not to, and even possibly regulate the use of bots and the algorithms behind them when they affect our lives in very real ways.
Some listeners may ask themselves, “How can bots help me?” And yes, its 2018, we should also be aware of when bots may actually help us and make our lives easier by automating the boring or hard stuff. Maybe in a personal or professional context you may be interested in using social media automation in the management of your social media profiles.
If you have an Instagram account, then you may be interested in InstaPy. InstaPy is not a bot, but is rather a set of tools that could be used to create an Instagram bot which automatically and contextually performs tasks like liking, following or commenting. With InstaPy one could grow ones follower account without the repetitive, time consuming and often mundane manual effort usually required. Trying to get more followers on Instagram is in earnest what I was trying to do when I came across InstaPy. As Tim, founder and lead developer points out in the podcast, its hard to grow your influence with all the competition currently out there. So take a listen to CYBERnyama04, and check out our pointers of how to get started with InstaPy.
If you have any suggestions of issues relating to bots, social media automation that CYBERnyama should look as we further investigate bots, then we would love to hear your suggestions.