Are robots taking over the world? In a word, no. But they’re trying to. More accurately, humans are creating software and hardware that automatically does more and more, some of it for good purposes, some not.
“Bots,” like robots, are software routines that can retrieve information you specify, comparison shop, play chess and other games with you, track stocks, alert you to cheap airfare, and perform other automated tasks.
As just one example, you can use Google Alerts to be informed through email when your name appears on a newly created webpage.
Some bots can even write articles, like this one. Again, not quite. But bots can write articles using basic information, faster than any human could. The Associated Press uses a bot to generate news stories on corporate earnings reports. Fox uses a bot to create sports recaps. The Los Angeles Times uses a bot to report breaking news about earthquakes.
There’s a downside to this. Some websites consist entirely of low-quality, bot-generated articles, in existence merely to attract visitors and generate ad revenue.
It’s not limited to articles. Some books are created by bots. “Catfishing” is the name of a type of scam perpetrated on Amazon to trick people into buying low-quality ebooks.
Sometimes the scammer uses the name of a legitimate author as the book’s author. They may use fake Amazon accounts to automatically generate downloads during temporary periods when the ebook is available for free, making it appear popular. The reviews of these books are often faked as well.
Such scams violate Amazon’s terms of service, and it spends considerable resources searching them out and shutting them down. But nothing prevents the scammer from starting afresh with a different name.
Even though the price of any given ebook is often 99 cents, lots of money can be made. One scammer from Toronto, Canada, was recently outed after generating $3 million from these phony books.
Bots can have other nefarious purposes. A cybercrook can take control of your desktop or laptop PC and turn it into a “zombie,” employing a bot to remotely send out spam and phishing attacks. You can go a long way to preventing this by using security software and keeping it up-to-date.
Robots can also have a physical presence, existing as hardware. The word “robot” was coined in a 1920 by the Czech writer Karel Capek to denote a fictional humanoid. But most hardware robots don’t attempt to approximate the look of a person.
Perhaps the most well known consumer-oriented robot is the Roomba, a robot vacuum cleaner sold by iRobot. Introduced in 2002, it’s a small disk that scampers about a room, sucking up debris and bouncing off walls and furniture. Lower-priced competitors include Anker’s RoboVac. Instead of vacuuming, some models perform water-based mopping actions.
Companies have used industrial robots for years to automate the assembly line and the warehouse, and these devices continue to improve in sophistication.
Some people fear that robots will force humans out of work and lead to rising unemployment. But it’s more likely that they’ll just continue the process of reshaping job functions that started with the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s.
A common theme in literature and later in film is manmade devices becoming so powerful and independent that they threaten to subdue their creators. Perhaps the most famous early iteration of this was Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus. (Yes, it has a subtitle). The book’s enduring legacy is its warning about technology let loose, gone wild, out of control.
The futurist Ray Kurzweil has contemplated how machine intelligence will become ever more intelligent in his many books. In his 1999 book The Age of Spiritual Machines, he asks, “Can an intelligence create another intelligence more intelligent than itself?”
He answers his question in the affirmative. He predicts that by the year 2030 an ordinary PC will achieve the full capacity of the human brain.
Yet what our noggins do far better than today’s fastest supercomputers is “pattern recognition,” allowing us to remember faces or appreciate the beauty of a sunset. Kurzweil boldly predicts that in the not-too-distant future, computers as well as robots will have this capability and others, including consciousness and the ability to have emotional, and even spiritual, experiences.
Whether or not this comes to pass is anyone’s guess. Robots and the computer circuitry inside them will certainly get smarter. Whether they will outsmart us is a question that in the near term will continue to be mind-boggling to contemplate.