The bots are already upon us

I finally reached a personal milestone this week and launched my own Twitterbot. It’s quite a simple bot, using a couple of Python libraries and guidance from Hannah Shaw to construct random sentences from a copy of A Tale of Two Cities.

But as I looked around at bots, trying to figure out what I might do as a coding challenge, I was stunned by the incredible creativity and use to which they have been put. They really show how powerful even small bits of logic can be.

There are so many examples inane bots tweeting as the hours strike or every line of Shakespeare (on it’s fifth go round apparently). And, of course, cats. You’ve also got the more nefarious kinds spreading disinformation or spam.

But then you’ve got bots digging into the wonderful archives of the National Library of Australia, surfacing newspapers from decades ago. And weird performance art (is it performance art when your code does the performing?) that people interact with.

Looking at the source code, I’ve yet to find one that is more than a couple of hundred lines long, and most seem a lot shorter than that. Bots are often spoken about in catacylsmic ways, but also as an abstract idea that hasn’t really come.

But here we have bots inserting themselves into, and augmenting, many peoples’ daily life. Though simple, they provide joy, distraction, interaction and even community.

Check out this Mary Queen of Scots bot. From an old article:

Besides fellow Catholic history nerds and scholars of the period, Queen Mary has attracted a fairly staggering audience among Scottish separatists, especially given the coming Independence Referendum in September. “Thanks to the astronomical rise of the Scottish National Party, anything against England or English policies usually garners massive support,” she says. “My Scottish Nationalist followers absolutely eat anything anti-English with a spoon. It’s a strange mixture of wonderful and frightening to see history take shape in that way.”

 
But easily my favourite bot is Every3Minutes. It tweets every three minutes to remind us that a person was sold every three minutes in the American South between 1820 and 1860.

Both a profound and devastating thing to be reminded of in a way that only machines can – regularly and persistently.