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A Parade of Bots
For instance, I was in this online environment one time, and I kept hearing about this character named Dr. Sherry. Well, this Dr. Sherry administered questionnaires. Dr. Sherry interviewed people about their lives in this online environment-but I wasn't Dr. Sherry.
However, many people assumed, not unreasonably, that I was this person. I didn't know what to do. So I began looking into the activities of Dr. Sherry, and I found that she was in this online environment all the time. Dr. Sherry would be there at 3 a.m.; she would be there at 6 a.m., and she would be there at 5 p.m.
It finally dawned on me that this person might not be a person at all. She might be a bot that was programmed to interview people about their online experiences. It was an astounding moment: I meet my double and it could be an artificial being.
So I think that bots are a wake up call that we're getting to the point where some of the entities we interact with online may in fact be machines. It makes us reflect on what it is to be intelligent and what it is to be alive.
From an interview with Sherry Turkle, reprinted with permission from E-Business January 1997 edition (find it online at: http://hpcc920.external.hp.com/Ebusiness/january/main1.html)
Bots, bots, bots, they are popping up everywhere. In the Jetsons cartoons of our youth (or at least mine) there were all sorts of helper robots. They would serve you dinner, drive you places, and carry your bad news to the boss. Well, it turned out that the household robot was a little bit harder to build than everyone thought. But don't be blue, for the bots are finally here for you! A bot is like an avatar, except that no person inhabits it, just a piece of automated software. It may come as no surprise that bots have been living in computers in various forms for a long time.
Agents, much touted ancestors of bots
Back in the early days of Unix and the Internet, tiny pieces of software called daemons were created to do a lot of nasty little background tasks, like killing off errant programs, and bouncing mis-addressed email. In recent years, there has been a lot of attention focused on intelligent agents, or software with a little more personality and brains than daemons. Proponents are really convinced that intelligent agents will become the universal tools to simplify our ever more complex lives. Agents will do all your bill paying, help our kids with their homework and even book our funerals and manage our living trusts when we die. The Pharaoh's dream of immortality will come true as our agent successors accumulate enough wealth to clone us anew, say the agent backers!
The Internet is full of bugs!
Agent evangelists tell us that the era of the agent is already here. They point to the Internet and say that it is crawling with them: "spiders" or "webcrawlers" are constantly visiting Web pages and gobbling up juice tidbits we may want to search for later on. "Search agent: crawl my website!" is a cry heard across the net by people desperate for more visitors to their beloved home pages. Someone once told me that there are more species of beetles than just about anything else and that we should rightly call this the age of the beetle. It turns out that a great proportion of the 'hits' or visits to home pages are actually search agents. With the new angent-centric Java language, more agents are on their way to make the Internet an even more complicated place. Who knows, there may be a need for agent hunters to cull the teaming agent population.
There is a bot in your virtual community
Agents long ago became a part of the furniture in virtual communities. In fact, it was inside chat based communities built using IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and MUDs (Multi-User Domains) that the word bot was first used to describe a software agent that interacts with the citizens of a virtual community.
There are some great taxonomies of bots on the net. If you want to investigate further, check out the Bot Spot at: http://www.botspot.com/. In addition, bot historian Kenneth Lonseth developed this comprehensive description and links page about all the various species of bots at: http://www.mindspring.com/~lonseth/alife/bots/bots.htm. Ken has kindly agreed to describe for us his view of bots bots and chatterbots including the famous great ancestor bot Eliza:
Bots are software programs that reside on the net responding to communications protocols and users. Some perform maintenance tasks and gather information, while others are meant to disrupt online communications or just be plain annoying.
The first acknowledged bot was Eliza, made by MIT professor Joseph Weizenbaum in the mid 60s. Eliza is a psychotherapist of sorts, annoyingly dodging questions with questions of her own. Eliza is also the first chatterbot: a bot meant to interact with humans. She looks for certain key words and responds according to her programmed algorithm. Eliza is painfully simple compared to modern chatterbots, and her limitations are quickly revealed during a short dialog. These days it's common that chatterbots employ a host of "tricks" to help simulate human responses. They also store conversations to build up databases for future use.
An actual rendition of Eliza can be downloaded and talked to at the Simon Laven Page: http://www.student.toplinks.com/hp/sjlaven/eliza.htm.
Ken goes on to describe thriving ecosystem of bots in MUDs and IRC:
MUDs are considered the first breeding ground for bots. Online multi user games are sprinkled with automated scripts designed to respond to user interaction. In the late 80s Michael Mauldin created the Mass-Neotek bots for TinyMUD at Carnegie Mellon University. These bots can register who are present, and make sure the users are abiding by MUDs rules. Newt is a bot of the Maas-Neotek family and resides within DragonMud. Newt can relay messages and keep track of your E-mail and homepage. He also tracks all players and objects within the MUD and can record all conversations up to a set memory limit. Most MUD bots or "mobiles" are not as sophisticated as Newt. They are just simple scripts designed to react when a user enters a certain area.
Multi user domains are not considered a vibrant ecosystem for bots because of the many flavors of MUDs. With MOOs, MUCs, and MUSHes the bots are confined to separate corners of the Internet universe, each programmed on a different variety of language.
IRC has the most thriving online bot community. With thousands of different people interacting, clashing and chatting its no wonder bots are deployed into the pool in drones. Most bots are made to hold ops on a channel or guard against hostile takeovers. There is an ongoing war between hostile bot users and channel operators. Of a less violent nature are the variety of gamebots and chatterbots that offer a little challenge and simple interaction. #Riskybus is a gamebot that gives Jeopardy style questions to users. It keeps the score of all users and even has some chat abilities.
Eggdrop is one of the most powerful and long lasting bots on IRC. It has many advanced features that help you protect a channel or even save it for you while logged off. Eggdrop has also the ability to link to other bots to form a pseudo-IRC called Botnets. The Botnet development has spurred a new line of "Limbo Bots" that never join IRC but only connect to Botnets.
Bots are banned from most servers because they are generally a nuisance. In most cases unauthorized bot deployment will get you K-lined or kicked off the server.
IRC bots live a firefly existence, with continuos changes. Most don't last for more than a few weeks. Entire generations are wiped out with new IRC server upgrades, and when bot rules of conduct are introduced.
Emerging from the agents craze and the bot ecologies we should see some pretty interesting bots walking around in our local virtual worlds. I personally hope we get bots as smart as the house robots on the Jetsons. In fact, bots are already appearing in avatar Cyberspace even as you read this! Lets meet one of the first of these nefarious characters.. Floops.
Floops is a creation of Protozoa (http://www.protozoa.com). He was created to star in a string of regular short performances at the big Silicon Graphics VRML website http://vrml.sgi.com. Floops has quite lifelike body moves and a great voice-over act. Floops is a bot with a human personality. His gestures were made by capturing a real actor's motions in a body suit. This is called motion capture and is used in many Hollywood films to make synthetic actors around in believable fashion. All of this is called performance or character animation and seeks to achieve what the experts are calling suspension of disbelief. Your disbelief has been suspended if just for an instant you forget that you are just looking at computer models and start to immerse yourself in the story unfolding on the screen.
Protozoa has a fascinating history on their own. Using their custom built ALIVE! animation software, they created the Moxy character, a virtual host for the Cartoon Network. Short scenes starring Moxy would be created every week so that he always had fresh shtick to serve to the masses of cartoonaholics. An actor in a body suit would walk Moxy around an do his gestures while a comedian would read Moxy's lines. Moxy's scenes would be made in real time driven by these performance artists and ready to go on the air within minutes. See more about Moxy and Protozoa's other projects at: http://www.protozoa.com/alive/index.html.
There seems to be no reason why the nightly news couldn't be presented to us by some future Floops. With the voice processing and lip synchronization from Onlive Traveler, a good VRML toolkit any ten year old wired genius with a PC, microphone and modem could run their own TV network. Hey, why wait for years to see video through the Internet?
Lets take a closer look at Floops. Floops stars in one to two minute episodes produced twice a week. This reminds me of those film shorts from about a century ago, which were all about one to eight minutes long. It is hard for us to believe now that people would line up at a nickelodeon box just to peer in and see a three minute film loop. It will amuse our kids when they picture us sitting on our 28.8K BPS modems, waiting for a half hour to 'experience' a VRML episodic cartoon. But hey, you have to start somewhere.
Figure 13.2.1: floopsp1.jpg
Floops says: click on that dish!
Here we can see Floops after we started the episode. He is watching us through the tube of our computer display, gesticulating for us to "do something". Floops comes with his own voice, as recorded by a voice-over artist and replayed in time with Floops' body moves. The Floops follies are a little interactive in that you can click on things and Floops will notice. Floops is desperately trying to get us to click on the dish on his right.
Figure 13.2.2: floopsp2.jpg
Bingo! You get a fish!
If we finally click on the dish and a fish is ejected into the air and swims (or flies) off. End of episode. Was it worth the three minute wait for the download? Maybe. Bot performance worlds like Floops or Atomic 3D's Neutron (see the chapter Brave New Worlds) will get better and better when the models of the characters can be downloaded only once and the only thing that will need to stream in will be their gestures and voices. You could download all the props, avatars and sequences of body moves to begin with and then every episode will take less time to start playing. This is how Active Worlds and many of the other virtual worlds work today and part of the reason we have avatar Cyberspace years before everyone thought it would be possible. Of course more interaction with the bots in episodes should make them more interesting and less like the familiar old couch potato 'push it down my throat' TV.
Find more VRML episodic cartoons try out Mediadome's Driftwood at: http://www.mediadome.com/Webisodes/Protozoa/Fun/.
Bots, coming to a world near you
Of course, we have yet to see something as sophisticated and well crafted as Floops inside an inhabited virtual world interacting with real people. But bots are already making their appearance. Most worlds already have simple agents or daemons, like the building inspector in AlphaWorld, that watches to make sure you are not encroaching on someone else's property. Way back in the summer of 1995 a hacker calling himself Cure95 inserted two bots into Worlds Chat. This fascinating event is described in section called A Brief History of Worlds Chat in the chapter on Worlds Chat earlier in this book.
Black Sun introduced bots into Passport in the spring of 1997. You can see one described in the section The Mysterious Mysterio in the Black Sun Passport chapter. Bots in the Palace have been seen sporting a Star Trek "Borg" eyepiece. I have often wondered whether or not bots should tell avatars that they are not people. I know that bots running in text-based MOO communities have carried on conversations with people for hours, convincing them that they were other users.
This all harkens back to the Eliza program described earlier in this chapter and the famous 'Turing Test' of machine intelligence devised in the Forties. It is all pretty silly when you get right down to it, but people seem to thrive on tricking each other. It seems to me that a good way to indicate that an avatar is actually a bot would be to give it something like a Borg eyepiece, say, a monocle. If the avatar is not human-looking, you could still find a place to hang the monocle and its chain. If perchance the bot was temporarily being driven by a person, the monocle could be temporarily placed in the bot's shirt pocket. I guess you might think I am sounding terrible old fashioned, prudish or even Victorian. It just so happens I was born in Victoria (B.C. Canada, that is) so I guess I am thereby entitled to this. I just want to know who (or what) I am talking to!
Why do we need bots?
In an otherwise empty, lonely virtual space, a bot can be a great trigger for conversation and can hold new users just long enough for others to be attracted in. Onlive implemented bots to do just this in their ABC Monday Night Football world. Here, the "tackle dummies" were bots that would play audio files when you got near them. These audio attention getters would usually be a sports trivia question related to the football game happening on TV at the same time (and streaming into the world). You could then try to answer the questions.
Good "welcome" or "greeter" bots should give newly arrived users a sense of belonging and a feeling of being included. These avatar citizens are more likely to stay longer and return in areas where they are not accosted by pushy "salesbots". I played a bartender named Odiyah in the Low Earth Orbit station in the MUD called SolSys Sim for a while, and so can appreciate well designed "cybartender" bots found in worlds like Onlive Traveler and Extempo's Spence's Bar (see the section Other Worlds on the Horizon in the Chapter on Brave New Worlds).
Of course, bots could do other jobs inside virtual worlds. One idea I have had for a while is for a community service bot that could roam the giant AlphaWorld cityscape looking for "parking lots". Parking lots are big pieces of virtual land covered over by some overzealous citizen who then does nothing with all that acreage. These bots could identify this gratuitously grabbed land, determine who the neighbors are, call a hearing on the land and then auction it off to citizens willing to do something creative with it.