Bots: the Origin of New Species

Andrew Leonard

HardWired

San Francisco

1997

Reviewed by Rod Pollock

8/98

The author’s intent in writing this book was to furnish evidence of an "emergent property of the Net," cyberspace’s answer to Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection (p.182). This emergent property, coined by the author’s own term, is called the "Technodialectic." "The Technodialectic resolves the problems caused by bots and humans, and as it does so, it propels bot evolution onward. It’s a peculiar kind of evolution: unnatural selection, a survival of the fittest program, determined not by nature but by the interaction between human and computer (p.182).

The Theory of Natural Selection is about survival of the fittest. Leonard points out that the key variable for determining fitness is habitat. The better a species is fitted to its habitat, the more likely it is to prosper and reproduce (p.24). Mirroring the development of computers and their networking, Leonard proceeds to furnish examples of bot implementation illustrating the "evolution" of bots. Bots’ adaptations to various electronic habitats are described beginning with multi-user domains (MUDs), progressing to the early days of the internet with Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and eventually to the parallel computing of the world wide web (WWW).

The book points out that bots cannot yet upgrade themselves, they are reliant on humans to migrate them and make them compatible with the next generation of hardware and software. Making this transition equates to survival for a bot. To survive, bots must fulfill some purpose for humans, whether as a tool or as a plaything (p.25).

Leonard defines a bot as "a supposedly intelligent software program that is autonomous, is endowed with personality, and usually performs a service" (p.10). Personality implies that the bot displays some aspect of human behavior or has in some way been anthropomorphized. Autonomous means that the bot must be able to do its work without direct human supervision. Leonard emphasizes the service/interface aspect as what makes a bot something greater than a curiosity. "Bots are the first precursors to the intelligent agents that many visionaries see as indispensable companions to humans in the not-too-distant future" (p.11). This definition clearly identifies bots with "weak AI," that is, imitating and acting like humans. I believe Leonard would argue that bots have never been intended to duplicate human cognition or think like humans.

Leonard’s examples portray bots as very hearty creatures, carving out a niche in available electronic habitats and surviving migrations from single machines to primitive chat rooms to unregulated networks. Naturally with figures determined with the aid of a web-bot, the book indicates that in May of 1993, there were 100 web servers in existence and, by January of 1997, that number had increased to 400,000+(p.122). The exponential growth of the WWW has provided new electronic habitat, a habitat favorable and conducive to properties inherent in bots. "The Web made the concept of cyberspace, long a staple of recklessly speculative science fiction, a part of daily life" (p.122). Leonard’s thrust is that bots have evolved to be ideally suited to the World Wide Web. As an integral mechanism of the Web, bots will aid in defining cyberspace and allow the resources there to continue to be useful. The development and expansion of computer networks such as the WWW, asserts Leonard, insures a prosperous future for a new, still rapidly evolving species whose origin is rooted in bots.

Among other examples, a multi-user domain project initiated at the University of Texas Advanced Communication Technologies Laboratory and their plague of Barneys illustrates that "bots never do exactly what we intend them to do" (p.180). A "workable social interface" with an emphasis on cute is exhibited by the "screensaver game" of Catz and Dogz (p.78). Bot use and web ethics are introduced through Internet Relay Chat mayhem caused by "underground gangsta takeover groups" (p.111). Opinions on natural language processing and interpreting intelligence is provided by past winners of the Loebner Prize, an annual competition based on the Turing Test. These examples present bots as actively researched elements of Artificial Intelligence particularly in the sub-fields of natural language processing and human-computer interaction.

"If the Net is defined as an organic combination of hardware, software, and humans endlessly self-balancing, then that very act of seeking balance is the life force that guides the evolution of the Net’s new species: its bots and agents. The environmental fitness of these new species is determined by the endlessly blooming and contending Net, always in search of solutions that will work within a technologically delimited reality" (p.182). Leonard’s examples all reinforce that bots and their services can be utilized both positively and negatively. "The Technodialectic implies an unending process of shakeout; not all survive in the bot battle for life. The survival of the fittest bot is dialectical because every technofix generates a new problem, which in turn requires a new solution, which in turn is undermined again" (p.182).

With a bit of history and a few current, colorful examples, I believe the author successfully illustrates an "emergent property of the Net," a property labeled by Leonard as the "Technodialectic." Approximately one year after the book was originally published, I could find no references (outside of links specifically to excerpts from this book) on the WWW to the term "Technodialectic." Perhaps a web-bot in the form of a search engine was not functioning properly, perhaps because this book is not being widely read or perhaps because Leonard isn’t as convincing as I am giving him credit for, the term "Technodialectic" is, if not unknown, at least unpopular.

The text is thoroughly stylized with plenty of cyber-lingo but, with a moderate understanding of computers, what is being implied is usually apparent. Leonard is not, however, forthcoming with many hard, convincing definitions. The design and layout is fun in a techno sort of way and gives the book an interesting appearance; an appearance very approachable for those with an interest in computers. This book would be best used and most valuable to someone wishing to gain insight into Artificial Intelligence and associated developments particularly regarding experiments and projects involving bots and intelligent agents in public network arenas. Predominantly unregulated, multi-user domains, Usenet and the WWW do not necessarily furnish less important evidence related to AI but Leonard’s examples emphasize informality and practicality over the scholarly and scientific.

sites exhibiting bots mentioned in this book

adopt your own virtual cats and dogs

http://www.petz.com/

home page for the ultimate challenge among natural language processing programs

http://www.loebner.net/Prizef/loebner-prize.html

multi-user domains and object oriented programming research at UT including Point MOOt

http://www.actlab.utexas.edu/~smack/moo.html

everything and more than you wanted to know about bots and intelligent agents including a "Bot of the Week"

http://www.botspot.com/main.html

amazon.com listing of published and customer reviews of Bots: the Origin of New Species

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1888869054/002-0080243-7770620

bio about author Andrew Leonard

http://www.hotwired.com/packet/packet/aboutus/leonard.html