A rapidly growing, benign, form of internet bot is the chatbot. From 2016, when Facebook Messenger allowed developers to place chatbots on their platform there has been an exponential growth of their use on that forum alone. 30,000 bots were created for Messenger in the first six months, rising to 100,000 by September 2017. Avi Ben Ezra, CTO of SnatchBot, told Forbes that evidence from the use of their chatbot building platform pointed to a near future saving of millions of hours of human labour as 'live chat' on websites was replaced with bots.
In one particularly striking example of how this rather limited bot has made a major impact, U-Report sent a poll to users in Liberia about whether teachers were coercing students into sex in exchange for better grades. Approximately 86% of the 13,000 Liberian children U-Report polled responded that their teachers were engaged in this despicable practice, which resulted in a collaborative project between UNICEF and Liberia’s Minister of Education to put an end to it.
Malicious chatbots are frequently used to fill chat rooms with spam and advertisements, by mimicking human behavior and conversations or to entice people into revealing personal information, such as bank account numbers. They are commonly found on Yahoo! Messenger, Windows Live Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger and other instant messaging protocols. There has also been a published report of a chatbot used in a fake personal ad on a dating service's website.
Efforts by servers hosting websites to counteract bots vary. Servers may choose to outline rules on the behaviour of internet bots by implementing a robots.txt file: this file is simply text stating the rules governing a bot's behaviour on that server. Any bot that does not follow these rules when interacting with (or 'spidering') any server should, in theory, be denied access to, or removed from, the affected website. If the only rule implementation by a server is a posted text file with no associated program/software/app, then adhering to those rules is entirely voluntary – in reality there is no way to enforce those rules, or even to ensure that a bot's creator or implementer acknowledges, or even reads, the robots.txt file contents. Some bots are "good" – e.g. search engine spiders – while others can be used to launch malicious and harsh attacks, most notably, in political campaigns.
However, as irresistible as this story was to news outlets, Facebook’s engineers didn’t pull the plug on the experiment out of fear the bots were somehow secretly colluding to usurp their meatbag overlords and usher in a new age of machine dominance. They ended the experiment due to the fact that, once the bots had deviated far enough from acceptable English language parameters, the data gleaned by the conversational aspects of the test was of limited value.
Love them or hate them, chatbots are here to stay. Chatbots have become extraordinarily popular in recent years largely due to dramatic advancements in machine learning and other underlying technologies such as natural language processing. Today’s chatbots are smarter, more responsive, and more useful – and we’re likely to see even more of them in the coming years.
The term "ChatterBot" was originally coined by Michael Mauldin (creator of the first Verbot, Julia) in 1994 to describe these conversational programs. Today, most chatbots are accessed via virtual assistants such as Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, via messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger or WeChat, or via individual organizations' apps and websites. Chatbots can be classified into usage categories such as conversational commerce (e-commerce via chat), analytics, communication, customer support, design, developer tools, education, entertainment, finance, food, games, health, HR, marketing, news, personal, productivity, shopping, social, sports, travel and utilities.