Automation has been around for decades. Factories, telephone systems and even fast food all have some level of automation. But as technology has advanced, automation has found its way into every aspect of our lives.
You have heard of bots, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). But what are they and how are they used?
Artificial Intelligence is really a broad term that encompasses the algorithms and tools that help computers mimic human behavior. There are many subcategories of AI: Natural language processing (NLP), deep learning, computer vision, deep fakes and machine learning.
This technology can be used for very good things, like developing theoretical models for the effectiveness and distribution of a vaccine. Other positive uses are rerouting of tracks delivering products to save time, fuel or both, predicting when and where a thunderstorm might produce a tornado, or predicting the exact amount of water a field of vegetables might need for maximum yield.
Machine Learning (ML)
This is the term that is most commonly confused with AI. Machine learning uses statistical analysis to learn autonomously and improve functionality. It does so by using various algorithms to analyze data, determine patterns, and generate the corresponding output. This is used for predictive analytics and predictive modelling.
Internet Robots (Bots)
They have many monikers: Internet robots, bots, web bots, crawlers and spiders. They are often used to perform repetitive tasks, like updating and indexing search engines, bulk emailing, or mass texting.
Bots can be useful for many legitimate applications. Most often, bots are used to gather information, such as who visited a website and what they viewed. This is done to learn about your preferences and interests. That information is usually used for targeted advertising.
However, the same technology can be used for bad purposes. Sometimes bots come as malware and are installed directly onto your computer. Once this is done, they connect back to a control server. These servers operate as a “command center” that controls all of the bots that were installed by the malware. This creates an “army of bots” doing the bidding of whoever controls that server. This is being done by cybercriminals and nation-states alike.
You can prevent your devices from being infected by using common sense and cybersecurity best practices. These include verifying a link in emails before you click on the link, never opening a link from an unsolicited email, and avoiding fringe websites and chat rooms.
If you have done one of the above or your device begins behaving erratically or slowly, you may have downloaded malware that included a bot. Update and run your antivirus software immediately.
The biggest use of bots currently is in social media. Nation-states, such as Russia, are using bots to create fake users. Once these fake users are created, artificial intelligence and machine learning look for keywords and patterns in chats, comments and discussions. The bots then flood these areas of discussion with comments designed to keep everyone emotional and arguing.
If you have found yourself in an argument with someone who is not in your normal circle, there is a good chance you have been arguing with a software program. At the very least, somewhere in that exchange of comments exists a bot that is stirring the pot of discourse. This is a form of psychological warfare.
A first step toward ending the division in the world is to stop arguing on social media. Offer to discuss the issue over a cup of coffee instead.
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Dr. John B. Nicholas is a Professor of Computer Information Systems and Co-Founder of the Cybersecurity Degree Track at The University of Akron. Dr. Nicholas has over 30 years experience in the technology field in both the private sector and in higher education.