Bots

The following was written as a submission to a political comedy show that is currently on the air [hint: hosted by a Brit]. It was written in 2016, during the election season, before the news of the Russian influence on the election broke.

The robot: It’s so much more than just the only dance you will ever catch me doing, since I have the natural rhythm of a steelhead trout.

And let me tell you, I can slay on the dance floor with the robot. SLAY.

Fabricated humans fascinate us—from the ones we dream up in science fiction to the real ones being designed in labs around the world—causing us as a society to ponder their technological limits. Most specifically: Will they ever become sophisticated enough to have sex with us?

screen shot 2018-06-15 at 3.53.54 pm

And will they ever, on their own, form an army and take over the world? And if they do, will aliens from another world land on this planet in the year 3000 and find no signs of organic life but seven continents of robots fucking?

desolate-landscape

Which they will have to puzzle over in the same way we puzzle over what long-ago cultures created after their civilizations disappeared, like the Moai heads of Easter Island…

screen shot 2019-01-14 at 6.02.43 am

…or the miles-long Nazca Lines in Peru.

monkey_nazca-lines

nazca_lines_condor

What is the point of all of this? Why does it exist?

screen shot 2019-01-14 at 6.03.43 am

And aren’t we glad we live in an age when this handsy creep is no longer an important part of our culture?

nazca-lines-10

Although this guy would be nice. I’m all for a 2700-foot friendly marshmallow man being in my back yard for absolutely no discernable reason. Hiiiiiii! [WAVES]

Leonardo da Vinci designed a mechanical human, and some speculate he may even have built it.

screen shot 2019-01-14 at 6.04.50 am

Reconstructions show a complex humanoid that could move in intricate ways that reflect perfectly the actual physics of the human body. It is considered a masterpiece of science from the dawn of the Renaissance, despite its failing in the most basic requirement of being sexually attractive. This is not a fuckable robot, but it’s not bad. It did fit the “warring robot” bill. Leonardo meant it to wear full knight armor.

Screen Shot 2019-01-14 at 6.05.49 AM.png

In fact, Leonardo also came up with the first design for an automatic weapon.

screen shot 2019-01-14 at 6.06.47 am

So, hats off to a man who was so visionary, he could grasp humankind’s future need for out-of-shape, untrained civilians to slaughter while barely lifting a finger.

The ultimate goal, as we advance robot design and engineering, is for them to be able to take over human labor or even just imitate human activity to advance our understanding of ourselves. And to that end, we design them to act and even look in an increasingly human way. In fact, at universities around the world, the finest brains are breaking down both human behavior and physical movement and attempting to get robots to perfectly replicate what it’s like to be a skin-covered organism that spends 65 percent of its time staring at things a foot-and-a-half in front of its face and complaining about its surrounding temperature.

In fact, the latest humanoid robots can react to touch, assess information, and even react to stimuli with subtle facial expressions. Take, for example, Diego-san by Hanson Robotics, designed to analyze face-to-face interactions between mothers and infants.

I’ll bet you didn’t know there was a nursery school in Uncanny Valley.

uncanny-classroom

Then there is Hanson’s Sofia, whose astoundingly human-like skin facilitates her repertoire of 62 expressions.

Smart enough to learn when to make the kinds of facial expressions that will get you off your ass and repairing that falling gutter over the garage. She doesn’t yet have arms, and you already know how that episode of Ink Masters is going to end. Get to it, Bradley.

Robotics engineers team up with anatomy experts so that robot anatomy can be identical to humans, as with this combination of air pump, artificial vocal chords, resonance tube, and nasal cavity from Kagawa University in Japan.

Because for robots to be authentically human they need to be able to clear their sinuses while standing behind you in line at the DMV.

And of course the ultimate goal is full body movement in reaction to stimuli, as with this robot child, engineered at Osaka University.

That is painful to watch. I can’t even say exactly why. Can we start a GoFundMe page to get that robot to a university that will instead make it do Happy Little Robot Boy things? And thank you, as usual, Japan, for setting the bar for cultural freakiness so astoundingly high the rest of us can only stand here with sports team colors on our faces and our rabbit-shaped dildos and be humbled.

screen shot 2019-01-14 at 6.17.07 am

But getting back to what’s important: As amazing as those robotic body movements are, we’ve sadly got a long way to go before automated sex dolls will be doing anything other than being a plastic hole that moves like the pistons of an old-timey steam-engine. Behold the absolute latest in robotic sex.

This contraption is called VirtuaDolls, and it was being sold for $200 a pop until the campaign had to be a halted, before production, due to too much demand. The makers felt they did not have the means and technology to fulfill the eight-orders-per-hour avalanche that was taking place. Now, along with this vagina-bot, you were to receive videos of these dead-eyed, seemingly bummed-out CGI women to make it all a touch cuddlier.

screen shot 2019-01-14 at 6.18.35 am

Clearly, as far as robot sex technology, despite the demand, we’re still in the equivalent of the flappy-wings-painful-crash days of aviation history.

What we really need is a sex robot that has caught up with the 21st century robot’s ability to imitate the sensual intricacy of dance. We need a sex version of the dancing robot named “Keepon,” designed by Kyoto’s National Institute of Information and Communications Technology.

Now that’s a robot I can get down with. Put together Keepon’s gucci dance moves, a silicon hole that will knead your penis like it’s bread dough, and some strappy black Marshmallow-Peeps-fitting lingerie and you’ve got yourself a stay-at-home date-night.

So far, these kinds of robots have not reached a technological level where they cause much more trouble than just weirding us out or making us want to put them out of their misery. But while there will be no army of robots taking over the world any time soon, the pursuit of human-like robots has brought to the world a growing danger that is worth a closer look.

Like every other corporeal thing in life in the 21st century, there is a virtual analogue for human-like robots. These are called “bots.” Bots are virtual robots.

Just as machinery that, say, puts together parts of a car are often referred to as robots, bots can be simple, practical workers made of nothing but a few lines of computer code, and will do everything from crawl the web looking for search engine content—web crawlers—to automated responses that notify Twitter followers when an earthquake takes place. Or, as we’ve seen in commercials, bots can respond to pizza emojis and set into motion delivery of actual pizza. Although so far the only working pizza bot is from Dominos, so “actual pizza” may not apply quite yet.

But even these very basic, faceless bots can cause a bot-load of trouble.

One way that bots are used to make money is that they inflate the number of views for ads, swindling money from advertisers. The bots are visiting websites, or, more accurately, their code makes the webpage register a new viewer. A study by comScore, a company that measures internet audiences and consumer behavior, found that, after looking at thousands of ad campaigns, 54 percent of display ads never appeared in front of a human being. And that was back in 2013. Advertisers are being charged for those fake views, which is a scam.

Now I’d like to take a moment here to point out that perhaps—just perhaps—if those who design internet ads would actually create visuals that would make us want to look at them, and not stuff like this…

screen shot 2019-01-14 at 6.20.41 am[OLD LADY WAGGING FINGER (GIF) AS SHE DOES IN ACTUAL AD]

…there would be less need for a manufacturing of fake customers. An ad that makes me want to punch an elderly woman in the face is not a good ad.

In 2014, an advertising technology specialist estimated that Chinese advertisers were losing $1.6 billion per year paying for ads that they assumed were being seen by bona fide humans, but were only being visited by bots.

And they can be much cleverer than that.

For example, two years ago a single bot, in one minute, purchased 1,012 tickets for a U2 concert at Madison Square Garden, despite a four-ticket limit and the venue’s best anti-bot software. These tickets were resold for hundreds of dollars, some even more than a thousand. For that kind of money, there had better be an actual Bonobot looking into my eyes and serenading me with “One.”

bonobot

That kind of ticket scalping is nothing less than a giant swindle, and it’s a huge problem in the performing arts industry. People creating these bots are making out like bandits because they are bandits when they pull that kind of shit.

Just as with robots, the more exciting goal in the development of bots, both those that are friendly and those that are nefarious, is to make them as human-like as possible. Microsoft’s taken a crack at developing a sophisticated chatbot named Tay. Tay is designed to resemble a teenage girl. Microsoft’s goal was to develop a bot that, absorbing the posts and conversations already on Twitter, and learning from its own interactions with Twitter followers, would develop sophisticated language skills; in this case, ones that reflected a teenage girl.

The Tay project had to be taken down in less than a day.

Now this is actually pretty poignant, because in our centuries-old quest to create artificial constructions of humans, when it comes to creating a personality that reflects collective human behavior, the natural result ends up being a racist, sexist, conspiracy-believing asshole. Microsoft’s new goal is to figure out a way for this virtual being to be less like real humans so that it may be acceptable viewing for real teens. And so that it may be something anyone who is not a douchebag would want to interact with without telling it to eat shit, go straight to Hell, and have a wonderful time bunking with Heinrich Himmler.

But the internet is already filled with less sophisticated versions of Tay. And if you are active on social media, you are not only probably familiar with them, you are probably friends with them.

As of 2014, there are more bots than people using the web. While a large percentage of these are practical, useful bots that are not actively pretending to be human, a rapidly growing chunk of them are trying to fool you. Every year, Facebook finds 67 to 137 million fake accounts on its site, and in the past Twitter has found that 24 million of its accounts are bots, almost certainly a number that has been growing daily by leaps and bounds. There are also millions of bots on Instagram. Millions. On Instagram. I knew those fire-station cats were fishy.

screen shot 2019-01-14 at 6.23.31 am

Images of cats living in fire stations is a racket, and it’s out of control. I don’t know how they are making money, but it’s some kind of money-making-bot cat racket, I’m telling you. This cat owns a summer place in Westhampton Beach, Long Island. Some hero.

Famously, the spouse-cheating site Ashley Madison used bots to swindle their customers, creating 70,000 female bots to send male users millions of fake messages. That is illegal, and additionally was unfair to the twelve actual flesh-and-blood women who had signed up for the service. The competition was insane, and those bot-ladies all claimed to be great at cooking Mediterranean cuisine and willing to do anal.

screen shot 2019-01-14 at 5.17.52 pm

A social media company called Cynk created Twitter bots that tweeted positive statements about the company and its stock. Automated trading algorithms—which are legal, mainstream bots used by traders—picked up on those conversations and started aggressively trading Cynk, driving its value up to $5 billion, with a B.

And bots do more than influence our purchases and scam people and businesses out of money. They can influence how people feel about issues, and even how they feel about other humans.

First, on its smallest scale: In our current economy where people often have to prove themselves before making a dime, they can boost their reputations to potential employers and audiences by boosting their social media numbers. Yes, for a bit of money, you can have your own army of bots.

Anyone in the arts or in business can present the illusion of having a huge following on YouTube, Instagram and other social or business sites. A reporter at CBC news in Toronto started a fake food truck business—the truck was a product of Photoshop and didn’t even exist—and was able to seemingly explode her business.

[JUST AS IN VIDEO, JOHN SLIDES THE WORDS THAT ARE IN QUOTATION MARKS ACROSS THE SCREEN IN BLOCKS, AND IMITATES REPORTER’S SPEAKING CADENCE]

There is already a “thriving market” for human-written “fake reviews” for “Amazon,” “Yelp,” and really any site that has a “comments section.” So programmers are motivated to come up with bots that can write complex reviews that are indistinguishable from the real thing.

And the more the technology grows, the more accessible it becomes. For $700 you can purchase a program called Zeus, one of the most popular bot management tools, which consists of a simple dashboard and easy to understand maneuvers to control your own personal army of bots.

Unfortunately, the dark power of bots even goes well beyond ripping off consumers and businesses. Bots are beginning to meddle in politics. Last April, a political digital consultant, Patrick Ruffini, noticed an avalanche of pro-Trump Twitter posts, coming every few minutes for hours on end, urging voters to file FCC complaints against robocalls from the Cruz campaign, obviously trying to shut down this massive effort to boost support for Cruz. Ruffini was able to determine that the Tweets were generated by bots, and Twitter suspended most of the accounts.

Now, robocalls are a legal way to campaign, so that kind of manipulated interference from the opposing candidate clearly falls under the rubric of [SLIDES WORDS ACROSS SCREEN] “unethical slimefest.” Never mind what was said in those pro-Cruz robocalls. Seriously. If you knew the content of these robocalls, it would just confuse the subject and induce unwanted feelings of sympathy for Trump, medically known as Trumpathy, which can cause digestive obstruction and phantom anger. Oh, okay, fine. Here’s part of a Cruz robocall, but I warned you!

That vomit in your mouth is Trumpathy, and it’s your own fault for keeping the sound on. Now go get some Pepto and here’s this to clear your head and get you back to your normal feelings for the man you usually refer to as CheetoHitler:

It’s like hitting an outrage reset button. Now we’re back to normal.

And both ends of the political spectrum are taking advantage. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have millions of fake Twitter followers. And I’m guessing it may not be an accident that a full third of Clinton’s followers, using the exact same wording, have Tweeted about clearing the night of September 16 so that they can catch the Bridget Jones movie on its opening weekend, hashtag ColinFirth hashtag FantasyFuck.  [HASHTAGS APPEAR AT BOTTOM OF SCREEN]

Now let’s look at the highest profile vote of the year outside of the U.S. presidential election: The Brexit vote. This report was from right before the vote.

[SHOW GRAPHIC OF ARTICLE QUOTE] “Automated social media accounts are being used by both sides of the Brexit debate…Web bot traffic now making up 60 percent of all online traffic according to the report, and the most active one percent of users generate nearly a third of all content, with top contributors tied to bot accounts.”

According to New Scientist magazine, throughout the period, the “Brexit bots”—bots designed to support Britain’s exit from the EU—were much more active, tweeting more than three times as often as the “remain bots.”

So okay, only a certain percentage of Brexit voters pay attention to Twitter and social media, so we can’t place the entire blame for the decoupling of the UK from its Euro-nation-loving neighbors on Twitter. Wait, was that a pee pun? Was that an actual pun about peeing? Not acceptable. I want names.

But after the vote, and because it was so close, there was an uproar from British citizens who felt they were misled, and that people didn’t really understand what they were voting for. So a petition was set up on the UK Parliamentary website requesting signatures to support a second EU referendum.  It was soon noticed that this petition was accumulating 10,000 signatures per second, and of the 3.7 million signees, 42,000 were registered in Vatican City, the tiny papal state with a total population of 840. Several thousand signatures came from Antarctica. Yes, the petition was flooded with bots, and had to be tossed. Unless it was those fucking Emperor Penguins again, messing with world politics, as they are wont to do. Don’t like the new prime minister of Vietnam? Blame the Emperor Penguins.

british-penguins

And as bad as all of that sounds, that’s just what we know about. It could go much deeper. And we know it already has in other parts of the world. Bloomberg News published a profile of Andrés Sepúlveda…

screen shot 2019-01-14 at 6.25.56 am

…a Latin American political consultant and rogue techy who created and reigned over 30,000 hardworking Twitter bots.

According to the article, [SHOW GRAPHIC OF ARTICLE QUOTES] “[H]is insight was to understand that voters trusted what they thought were spontaneous expressions of real people on social media more than they did experts on television and in newspapers…He wrote a software program, now called Social Media Predator, to manage and direct a virtual army of fake Twitter accounts. The software let him quickly change names, profile pictures, and biographies to fit any need. Eventually, he discovered, he could manipulate the public debate as easily as moving pieces on a chessboard—or, as he puts it, ‘When I realized that people believe what the Internet says more than reality, I discovered that I had the power to make people believe almost anything.’”

Sepúlveda’s teams worked on presidential elections in Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Venezuela. He is currently serving 10 years in prison for espionage related to hacking that took place during the Colombian presidential election of 2014. But in the years just prior, he had his greatest success: Working on the 2012 campaign of Mexico’s current president, Peña Nieto, who eked out a victory thanks in part to Sepúlveda’s tidal wave of bot propaganda.

This man, now in prison, literally shaped much of the politics in not just a territory, not just a country, but a dominion that stretches two continents, which we think of as Latin America.

And if you believe in superstition and religious visions, perhaps ancient natives of Peru had him in mind when they made the gargantuan Mr. Handsy 2,500 years ago.

screen shot 2019-01-14 at 6.03.43 am

I think we should probably name this guy Sepúlveda. He’s bald, he kind of looks like Sepúlveda. We know he doesn’t look like a Trump. Without question. [NB: That joke written shortly after Trumps remarks about “grabbing pussy” hit the news]

No doubt encouraged by the success of the throngs of Mexican bots that influenced the presidency, unscrupulous forces in Mexico have used bots to disrupt peaceful activism, as when a movement of protests was developing in response to the disappearance of 43 students, likely killed by drug cartels on the order of a corrupt mayor. The hashtag #YaMeCanse, or “I am tired,” became the touchstone for the spread of information regarding protests and actions. Bots flooded the search results with jargon and meaningless symbols, rendering the original hashtag useless.

According to Bloomberg, [SHOW GRAPHIC WITH QUOTE] “Gallagher and Lo Que Sigue blogger Alberto Escorcia say the bots have followed protesters from hashtag to hashtag over the past few months, drowning out real conversations with noise. They’ve also seen similar bots create fake hashtags in apparent attempts to push real hashtags out of Twitter’s trending list, spread anti-protest messages, and even send death threats to specific activists.”

Yes, death threats. Bots, non-existent humans that are assumed to be real people, are sending out death threats to quash protesters in regions whose governments are pretty much run by drug cartels, which includes people who, on a regular basis, unhesitatingly fulfill this aforementioned threat of death. Like a bomb threat, it will alter your actions whether it is fake or not, because there is no way for you to know.

And there’s more. It has been reported that in Syria, bot groups have “cursed, browbeaten and threatened anyone tweeting favorably about protests or opposition leaders.” An investigation in Turkey found that every political party was controlling bots that were designed to sway political opinion. China’s internet is now notoriously littered with propaganda bots, and there are also reports that there are bots recruiting for the Islamic State.

There is no real solution to this problem of bots. Just like how, in the far future, we will not be able to tell a human from an android until it is decapitated and fettuccini alfredo is spilling out of its neck…

screen shot 2019-01-14 at 6.27.42 am

…in the near future we will have no way of distinguishing the text we see in social media, on business sites, in comments sections, and specifically directed right at us, as text written by a real human or text written by a bot.

And most destructive is not the output of any one bot, but it’s the output of an army of bots. So it may be that the only choice we have is to analyze bot strategy and outmaneuver the enemy.

With that in mind, we decided to create our own Twitter propaganda bot, which we are calling DHB-bot, or Decent Human Being Bot. When our bot comes across words that indicate someone may not be acting as a decent human being, for example, someone tweeting the words “you’re a cunt,” “you’re a cuck,” or “#FreeMilo,” it automatically sends a reply tweet with a quote from a decent human being about the act of being a decent human being. These quotes include “Kindness is the noblest weapon to conquer with,” by 17th century decent human being Thomas Fuller, “You can accomplish by kindness what you cannot by force” by decent human being and former slave Publilius Syrus, and “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” by decent human being Martin Luther King, Jr. DHB-bot has already tweeted out [TK number] of reply tweets, and sadly has to reply to [TK number] of tweets every single day. Maybe a few people who receive these tweets won’t just roll their eyes and will instead internalize the positive possibilities that go along with not being a dickweed.

And just to drive the point home using the kind of robots we all really want to see more of, we present you with this: An army of Keepons dancing to a Bonobot singing U2’s kindness-inducing anthem, “One,” with the music played live in our studio by the band Spoon.

[Robot of Bono singing “One” as an army of a hundred Keepons dance as Spoon plays. After a few lines (“We’ve got to carry each other, carry each other, one love…”) band segues into Spoon’s “I Turn My Camera On,” as in the earlier Keepon video clip. John does the robot.]

###