The bot era has begun

Do you need a bot acting on your behalf?

It’s easy to recognize that automation has had a huge opportunity to advance as a result of the pandemic. However as a concept, automation is both broad and abstract. It manifests in a myriad of ways, depending upon the context and user.

No doubt hardware robots have gained much attention and have become a source of existential anxiety, yet it is software robots that are proliferating faster than anyone can count.

These “bots” were active pre-pandemic, albeit still somewhat niche or specific. Yet in response to ongoing supply chain stress, more and more people are turning to bots if only to have a chance of competing with other automated agents.

Since the Sony console was released in November, it has been hard to find in physical and online stores, partly because a global chip shortage has slowed down manufacturing of all kinds of tech products, from graphics cards to automobiles.

As a result, when the new PlayStation appears online on sites like Amazon, Target and Best Buy, it sells out in minutes — sometimes seconds. Sony has said that demand for the PlayStation 5 is unprecedented and that supply constraints could continue through next year. That makes the odds of buying the console feel as random as winning the lottery.

Someone is buying them, though, and the lucky few I’ve talked to relied on some form of automation.

“It’s really difficult to get one without any bots,” said SV Yesvanth, an information security engineer who wrote a web script to automatically scan online stores for available consoles after his own struggles to buy one in Hyderabad, India. After he succeeded in buying a PlayStation, he said, he connected his bot to a Twitter account and helped hundreds of other eager shoppers.

There is a kind of evangelical ethos that comes from successfully using a bot to obtain what you want.

On the one hand there is the thrill of victory or success. You won, and it was because the bot enabled operating at a velocity that is not normally accessible to a human. Yet on the other hand there is a bit of guilt, as you sense somehow you cheated. Ironically most people’s response to this mix of emotions is to encourage others to do as they have done. Hence the proliferation of this capability.

Similarly supply chain stresses are showing signs in all sorts of places, and sometimes bots are both part of the problem, and part of the solution.

Long gone are the days where going in person might be better.

Rather we’ve got a backlog from the pandemic that may break before it gets cleared.

Metaviews member Murley Herrle-Fanning spent time yesterday trying to book a test. After about 90 minutes of attempts he was left with nothing, other than the suspicion that the earliest test he can book manually is a year from now.

Of course we recommended he employ a bot. While there are some bots that are pre-programmed or dedicated to do specific tasks like stalk ticketmaster or monitor major ecommerce platforms. It is possible to make your own bot using relatively accessible tools. Especially if all you want to do is surf or check a website.

Automation is often beneficial, something I reflect upon each time I load the dishwashing machine or do the laundry. Bots can and should be beneficial, but that depends upon our literacy and agency.

Presently a lot of negative sentiment exists towards bots, perhaps because people do not feel much literacy and agency with regard to the bots in their life.

For example, on a basic level, even researchers, let alone journalists, disagree on what is meant by the word bot.

A person calling another person a bot has become the default insult or accusation in our society, perhaps as a sign that we are in the bot era.

Although perhaps that is borne from the adversarial relationship many people have with the bots that moderate and govern our social spaces.

Bots on social media or calling opponents bots on social media reflects how our politics (and media) is directly influenced from participation and input from the chattering classes, automated or not.

Does this foster distrust? And the need to employ bots to monitor the humans that govern our societies?

Or bots to monitor humans in hopes of identifying when those humans need help?

Now we run the risk of delving into dystopian scenarios, such as the one evoked in this obviously flawed if not corrupt study:

Regardless of the findings, it does seem to depict the spread of automation and robots into increasingly intimate realms.

These care bots look less like robots and more like invisible pieces of code, webcams and algorithms. They can control who gets what test at the doctor’s office or how many care hours are received by a person on Medicaid. And they’re everywhere. Increasingly, human caregivers work through and alongside automated systems that set forth recommendations, manage and surveil their labor, and allocate resources.

They are emerging because the US has chronically underinvested in care infrastructure, relying heavily on informal family support and an industry sustained by poorly paid workers – largely immigrants and women of color. These workers have a median annual salary of $25,000, and nearly a quarter of the workforce lives below the federal poverty line. Yet, demand for their labor is set to soar. In the United States, more than 50 million people are over the age of 65, and this number is expected to nearly double by 2060. The question looms: who will care for them?

There is a growing faith that tech can fill this gap by rapidly building care systems at scale, with the help of artificial intelligence and remote monitoring. Exhausted and understaffed nursing home workers could have sensors and webcams to help them keep tabs on residents’ health and wellbeing. The growing “AgeTech” industry could help seniors age in place in the comfort of their homes.

We’ve written and talked about this development extensively, including as part of a CBC radio show that we produced and hosted.

Just like shopping bots, care bots are already among us, proliferating rapidly, often without us realizing it, just like that frog in the pot slowly being brought to boil.

Yet as we keep emphasizing, automation is not necessarily something to fear, in so far as we have literacy and agency.

Ironically, what’s the fastest way to build that literacy and agency? By running a bot on your behalf. ;)