“I love bots” feels like a controversial statement now, given the rise of troll farms deploying them and the proliferation of egg accounts spreading bad information or engaging in harassment. Even if you set aside, say, their use by state actors to engage in digital political warfare, some bots are just annoying, spamming links to shady ecommerce web shops underneath viral posts. Who could love bots?
Me, I do. I love bots.
Consider this my hill to die on: Bots are not just agents of harm, and in our fight against their more malicious uses, we should avoid throwing out the metaphorical baby with the bathwater.
Think about a bot—what immediately comes to mind? Bots can be so many things beyond just the regular misinfo social media bots that are covered again and again in the news. The Barbican Centre’s 2019 AI: More Than Human show referenced “golems” as some of the earliest forms of AI. (Golems, according to Jewish folklore, are artificially created humans.) Following this through line, we can consider the Mechanical Turk—a chess automaton performed by a hidden human, designed to trick other humans into believing it to be real, moving, and sentient—as a bot also.
So what is a bot? It’s a bit of a philosophical question, because finding the answer entails figuring out the context in which you are inquiring about the bot. Are you talking about an entity, or a kind of behavior? A “bot” or something “bot-like” could describe both. A gaming bot can be a preprogrammed AI or an NPC (non-playable character) that populates the backgrounds of video games, engaging in random conversations and simulated tasks. A social media bot can be a Twitter account tweeting out nonsensical messages from a dataset, or planned programmatic responses in response to a word, theme, or even specific date.
So what do these examples have in common? Most simply, a bot is “an automated piece of software that performs predefined assignments, usually over a network.”
And yet bots aren’t one thing but many things. Bots are pluralistic, strange, and pure computation often mixed with simple “stupidity.” Bots can do only the things they are programmed to do, so in a way, they are extremely literal, and thus simple and “dumb.” Of the narrow “things” bots can do, they can still do a lot—and some of the actions are incredibly creative, even if other bots still tweet out spam links.
There are joke bots and art bots and Slack bots that send emojis and dancing parrots and can help you order lunch. My favorite bots play precisely into this simplicity with beautiful and hilarious results.
Some of my favorite bots are programmed by Darius Kazemi, an engineer and artist based out of the Pacific Northwest in the United States. Kazemi’s bots are silly, often referencing memes or internet jokes. There’s a structure to some standard jokes, like knock-knocks, for example, or “How many X does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”, and some memes have that structure too, with images and text combined to produce something humorous, snarky, or the internet’s “joke of the week.” As a result, jokes work really well as a space for bots to subvert and explore.