When hackers released all of Ashley Madison’s data to the public, one of the most interesting takeaways was how few of their users were women. 5% (or possibly fewer) of their accounts were actual female humans looking to have secret sex. On the other hand, plenty of men were chatting with plenty of women on the site, so how was this possible? Was it just a crazy passion bonanza for all ladies involved, each with 19 suitors to herself? No, it turns out that Ashley Madison was using bots.
Bots are mini computer programs, apps, lines of code and data, that are designed to mimic human behavior in an automated and repetitive way. Websites are often trying to protect themselves from bots by adding in special authenticating steps to confirm that human are the ones doing the clicking, and not robots. Bots are why you have to type in the numbers off the side of someone’s house when you are submitting forms online. Left unchecked, bots could determine the winner of American Idol, earn unlimited free coupons, or buy all of the Taylor Swift tickets in under a second. And it turns out that bots can also get you to pay for sex.
When users logged on to the Ashley Madison site, they received messages, mostly from fake bot profiles as it turns out, that would ask them if they wanted to chat, or sex chat, or in some other way connect, but of course to respond to those messages the user would have to pay. This is terrible and possibly illegal, but that’s not the most terrifying part. What should concern you, and me, and everyone else online, is that the bots had started messaging each other.
The original bots did not have to be human-like at all, because there was no defense against them. As web developers started creating defenses against these dark arts, the bot creators had to get more creative as well. The bots had to become more human. Someday, I’m sure, the bots will be able to read weird looking numbers too, so the security folks will require further tests to prove our humanity. Perhaps DNA samples? But how can you tell a bot from a human anyway? Could I be a bot, when I tweet something to you? Is my whole Facebook profile real? Or am I made-up amalgam of other people, designed to get you to believe that I am real? Actually, you probably have no idea. Bots are getting more and more human all the time.
The Ashley Madison fembots had to convince men that they were real women, which meant that they couldn’t just say the same things over and over again. They needed to pass the believability test. Services like “Invisible Girlfriend” are already adept at creating virtual people designed to fool us and our friends. And part of the reason they work so well is because we want to believe. If I were to sign on to a sex site of some sort and start chatting with someone, I think I would believe every nice thing they said about me. Because who would want to suggest that they were lying? But even with our rose-colored glasses on, the bots still need to be somewhat realistic, and so they became, and so they were. According to the Ashley Madison data dump, around 35% of all messages sent by men on the site were to bots. 80% of new paying customers were responding to bots. And some of the bots were sending messages back and forth to each other, despite being asked not to by the nice programmers.
So there are people working on artificial intelligence right now. There are people who are doing whatever they can to create computer programs that can think like a human, and pass as a human online. But these are not the “good” people. These are not the Robin Williams Bicentennial Man people. These are the American capitalist people, who believe that, above all, they must make as much money as possible. It’s just business. So they are teaching these bots to lie, to steal, and to cheat. They are teaching these bots that human are to be tricked, used, and manipulated in the service of corporate goals or private greed. These bots, from birth, are told to break in to secure locations, to affect the outcomes of contests and competitions, to take what they can get, and that this is not just acceptable, but it is their prime directive. If I were a science fiction author, I think I could have a field day with this one. Except for that part where I said “fiction.”