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Understanding Bots

BY: Kwami Ahiabenu

Bots are in most technologies we make use of.

They are not easily discernable but they are running in the background either doing something good like making your online experience better or something as covert as distributing unwanted messages in huge volumes; spamming.

Although technologies which simulate human dialogue with a computer or other devices are not new, they are over 50 years. This is increasingly becoming popular and trendy.

Computing is more and more turning to the automation of tasks which are structurally repetitive and time-consuming, or impossible for humans to undertake.

A common tool used in this way are bots, also known web robots, web crawlers, spiders or chatbots.

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What can bots do?

Bots can be used for good and bad applications.

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When you send a message to order a product or service and process variety of customer service requests without the intervention of a human being, you are making use of a good bot without realising it.

These bots index search engines to enable searching online, setting an alarm, adding an appointment to your calendar, finding restaurants and checking out weather conditions.

Some bots can even help you save money by providing you with bank balances and bills which are due for payments while providing pointers to how to save money.

Also a popular application of bots is automatic interaction with instant messaging, instant relay chat, dynamic interaction with website, in this situation, when you visit a website and you have a question to ask, a bot is set to handle such queries, sometimes answering up to 100,000 requests at a time.

Apple’s product called Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana are examples of Intelligent Personal Digital Assistants using Voice Command Technology which are made possible by bots.

In programming these bots, they are designed to act like humans so that in talking to them, one finds that the experience is no different from asking a person for help.

You can find a variation of bots, called chatbots, on numerous messaging apps such as Facebook Message, Telegram, WhatsApp and Kik. Twitter also comes with in-built bots which provide rudimentary replies to your messages.

Newsrooms such as CNN make use of bots in showing top news headlines to their audiences.

Amazon bots are designed to help users search for products on Amazon when they are shopping online.

We now have bots which engage humans in a virtual relationship through sites such as Invisible Boyfriend (https://invisibleboyfriend.com) and Invisible Girlfriend (https://invisiblegirlfriend.com).

These bot-run sites enable you to fake a relationship with a bot without the “baggage” of dealing with a human since you are dealing with a digital replica of a man or a woman with full-fledged conversational capacity and a distinct persona.

On the other hand, bots can be used for numerous negative applications such as malware bots which are used to gain unauthorised access and control over a computer system.

Such malicious bots are designed as self-propagating malware that infect a system or central server and other devices, gather passwords from users, obtain financial information such as credit credentials, launch Denial of Service (DoS) attacks, infect systems with viruses and worms and capture and analyse network packets.

Bots are also used to distribute racist and offensive messages as a way of controlling online narratives during elections in some countries with the intention of manipulating electoral outcomes.

What is bots attack?

When computer systems and devices are infected by bots, you can tell by observing some of these changes: relatively slow Internet connection with no explanation, computers may take longer time to shut down or crash for no apparent reason, pop-up windows and advertisements appear on your computer or device even if you are not browsing, persons complain about mails from you although you did not send any and setting changes which were not done by you.

Although there is no 100 per cent way of protecting yourself fully from malicious bots, you can take the following steps to minimise or eliminate some attacks by installing firewalls, never clicking on anything suspicious, using complicated passwords which contain numbers, words and symbols, regularly changing your password and ensuring your software, especially anti-malware, is up to date.

Although you can clean your computer system or devices infected by bots, the best defence is prevention through good security practices.

Bots are relatively not smart today but as artificial intelligence keeps improving, their features are expected to improve in order to make their use less frustrating, especially when they do not understand some questions you pose to them.

In the long run, we are going to experience smarter bots with practical application for our homes, offices and cars as they increase their capacity to automate our lives.

The writer is the Director of Innovations at Penplusbytes.org

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