Year of the bots

When most of us hear the term ‘bot’, we think of the infamous botnets that bombard us with malware-laden spam or deliver automated denial of service attacks. Bots, it appears, were created to do harm, or at least to annoy people.

Bots – the evil kind – are defined thusly on Norton Security's website:

Bots are one of the most sophisticated types of crimeware facing the Internet today. Bots are similar to worms and Trojans, but earn their unique name by performing a wide variety of automated tasks on behalf of their masters (the cybercriminals) who are often safely located somewhere far across the Internet. Tasks that bots can perform run the gamut from sending spam to blasting Web sites off the Internet as part of a coordinated "denial-of-service" attack. Since a bot infected computer does the bidding of its master, many people refer to these victim machines as "zombies." Bots do not work alone, but are part of a network of infected machines called a "botnet." Botnets are created by attackers repeatedly infecting victim computers using one or several of the techniques mentioned above. Each one of the zombie machines is controlled by a master computer called the command and control server. From the command and control server, the cybercriminals manage their botnets and instructs the army of zombie computers to work on their behalf. A botnet is typically composed of large number victim machines that stretch across the globe, from the Far East to the United States. Some botnets might have a few hundred or a couple thousand computers, but others have tens and even hundreds of thousands of zombies at their disposal.

Yet these little virtual critters (‘bots' is short for robots) aren't all bad – they are, after all, just a tool. And that tool has also been discovered by people who want to do something useful with it.

Lynn Greiner, freelance IT journalist and regular contributor to InsightaaS
Lynn Greiner, freelance IT journalist and regular contributor to InsightaaS

We all know the so-called intelligent assistants like Apple's Siri, Google Now, and Microsoft's Cortana. They're bots, of varying functionality, and they're programmed to respond to requests with some amount of personality. They're not up to the level of the bot in the movie Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix's character falls in love with his bot Samantha, but Siri and Cortana both try to tell jokes and interact with their users in a human-like way. Microsoft even employed the actress who voiced the AI Cortana in the Halo games to be the voice of its bot.

But, says Robert Hoffer, co-founder of ActiveBuddy, the company that launched the first commercial instant messaging bot, bots are nowhere near where they need to be. In a post on Venturebeat.com, he lists eight things that bots need to succeed, including basic chat skills, what he calls "IM-ability", which translates to the bot feeling like someone on your IM friend list, memory (so it learns about you), domain knowledge, a sense of humour, personality and soul.

While bots don't have many of these attributes yet, Hoffer said in his post, "take heart: We’re going to get this right. We’re a lot farther along today than we once were, with broad adoption in the development community, strong interest by brand builders, strong support by platform providers and the backing of the entire venture industry. Instead of a lone commercial bot company and three messaging platforms, we’ve got the entire world pulling for bots."

And there are some good examples of the progress we've made. For example, a UK-born Stanford University student, Joshua Browder, created a bot called DoNotPay, which he bills as the world's first robot lawyer, to help people appeal parking fines. It has since been expanded to assist with things like claims for delayed flights and trains and payment protection insurance. Now Browder has widened his bot’s scope again, to assist homeless people in the UK in navigating the social services system. He hopes to create similar services for US cities such as New York and San Francisco.

There are, of course, commercial uses for bots. Financial software firm Sage has just released a beta of Pegg, a virtual assistant that communicates through messaging apps like Slack and Facebook messenger. Pegg lets users log their expenses directly into the accounting system by simply sending it a message, in natural language, saying things like, "I spend $50 on parking," and attaching a receipt. Pegg determines how to turn that into an entry in an expense report. Sage One customers can also ask Pegg about the state of their business – who owes money, who's late paying, how much they've made in a given month, and so forth – in conversational terms.

Cisco, too, has hopped into the world of bots with Monica (also in beta). Monica will hang out in telepresence rooms, responding to voice commands and questions from users such as "who am I meeting with next?" by generating the meeting info and a list or participants. Monica will also be able to find subject matter experts within the company and call them.

Several financial institutions actually have trading bots that, interestingly, are apparently trusted more than humans by high net worth customers who have a lot more to lose if something goes wrong.

I suppose it's an endorsement of sorts – but then again, in the mid-1960s, a program called Eliza, which could be considered an early bot, managed to convince some users that it was a human therapist (perhaps it was a more innocent time). Whatever the reason, many people tend to have faith in bots, perhaps relying on the tech to be non-judgemental. Eliza researchers found that some patients would tell the bot things that they'd never have confessed to their human therapists.

Bots are also being used in customer service environments to handle routine queries, freeing up staff for more complex issues, and in many cases, the customers have no idea that the helpful entity they're interacting with is silicon, not flesh and blood. And Taco Bell is developing Tacobot, an ordering bot that works through messaging service Slack, which lets customers interact in conversational terms, jokes with them, and even indulges in creative upselling ("Come on, add bacon – live a little").

Bots like these are not only fun, they can save companies a lot of time and money, and allow employees to do things that are more interesting and engaging. They will, in short, let us all live a little.

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