I woke up the other morning to an email inbox flooded with WordPress notices. Someone had commented on my blog almost a dozen times. This didn’t excite me like it might’ve three years ago when I started the blog and viewed each infrequent comment as a sign that someone had taken to my writings. Instead, I felt annoyed that I’d have to sign in to WordPress to approve all the comments, lest someone think I censor my blog.
Since I started the blog The News in Arabic in 2008, I used it to publish my sporadic translations and analysis of interesting news bits from the Arabic-language media. Then I moved to Syria, where I didn’t have internet at home, and my interest in keeping the world informed about Arabic-language media waned.
My most-viewed post remains “Omar Souleyman’s Rise to Indie-Hipster Semifame,” which has received almost 2,000 hits since 2009. Other than that, I assumed that no one really read my blog, so I let it become a spam wasteland, which brings me back to that morning.
A brief look at the ten comments from a user identified as “Arabic News Reporter” tipped me off that an intelligent spambot had infiltrated the comments section.
I clicked on the first comment: “These news articles helped me a lot in finding out what is happening in the region.”
Then the next: “These are fabulous pictures and really a great place to stay for tourists and visitors.”
Then another: “Steps should be taken to solve the problem and the author has done a great job to highlight it.”
The spambot’s eloquent syntax and correct spelling impressed me, but the vague, complimentary tone left me thinking that these blog-infiltrating robots still had a ways to go before they could pass as human. I deleted the notices in my inbox en masse, breathing a sigh of relief that I wouldn’t even have to sign in to WordPress. I could just let the spam sit there unpublished for life. But then, the notices kept coming, taking over my inbox until “Arabic News Reporter” had left 18 comments, and counting. I should admit here that I like to have an immaculate inbox — every email must be read, deleted, or starred instantly. I can’t have a flashing Gchat or a number peeking at me from a browser tab. I had to stop this Arabic Reporter version of @horse_ebooks before it commented on every single one of my posts.
I clicked on the commenter’s email — I didn’t know spambots had emails — and I typed a concise complaint in the subject line: WHO ARE YOU AND WHY AREA [sic] YOU SPAMMING MY BLOG?
Even if it was just being sent to some machine in Russia, I wanted the spambot to feel my rage.
To my surprise, I got a response. I also didn’t know spambots could do that.
“Sorry!!” he wrote.
Ah, some bot must have hacked his account and now he’s probably receiving angry emails from lots of people.
“oh, i’m sorry! i thought this was a spambot,” I wrote back.
Wait, I thought, maybe it was a spambot and now I’ve fallen deeper into their trap and they’ve got my email address. This is just what it wanted.
“Oh I see, no problem and ya I read the articles and found them very interesting. Best Regards and good luck,” he replied.
I went back and re-read his other comments and it became clear that I had mistaken a human for a robot for the first time in my life.
“This article is written with intent which keeps the reader awaken.”
“I don’t think Iraq is more securer and the situation is getting worse as the days are passing by.”
“I totally agree with it and in the end what they are getting after killing that much people and so much loss both physically and financially.”
“Nice thoughts and application.”
“This work would be helpful for the concerned. Great work done!”
I clicked on the link next to his commenter name and saw that he actually is an “Arabic News Reporter” for an Arabic-language publication. Immediately, I sent him an unrestrained apology email containing a series of excuses on how I had never received so many comments in so little time. He didn’t respond.
The blog Mr. Destructo describes a bot as lacking “any self-awareness, coherency or seeming ability to respond to all but the most basic stimuli.” In other words, it’s the opposite of a human being. Yet maybe the divide between spambot and human is not as clear-cut as we would like to think.
My introduction to the blurring of human and robot worlds was The Twilight Zone. One of the most common Twilight Zone twists was the revelation that your human protagonist — the one you had come to sympathize with and understand throughout the episode — was actually a robot. The episodes left the hanging question: would we, as humans, continue to sympathize with the character even though she was not one of us? Oftentimes, for me at least, the answer was yes. I deeply sympathized with the woman who found out that she was a store mannequin, or with the astronaut’s girlfriend whose battery expired.
In these fictional worlds, I considered myself a robot sympathizer. But in the real world, I found myself yelling disrespectfully via email at what I thought was a spambot. I’m pretty sure that bitterness toward spambots is almost universal, but sometimes our behavior hints at a more complicated relationship. Hundreds of commenters regularly interact with @horse_ebooks’s Twitter feed, laughing or perhaps deriding the bot’s random observations. Would the commenters ever take into consideration the spambot’s “feelings”? Doubtful, but it doesn’t make our feelings toward robots less ambivalent.
In 1950, the British mathematician Alan Turing invented the eponymous test that sought to determine whether machines could “think” like humans. In the Turing test, a human judge would have simultaneous conversations with a machine and a human. At the end the judge would have to determine whether or not he was speaking with a human or a robot. If the robot prompted enough dissonance, it could be said to exhibit traces of human intelligence. Turing concluded that machines, in some ways, could actually “think.” Try the Turing test and see if you don’t experience genuine confusion as to what you’re talking to.
Maybe Turing’s test confirmed in a small way what some of us were hoping — that our interactions with the world of robots and machines might not be totally one-sided. Over half a century later, the test was reversed with the CAPTCHA or “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.” The CAPTCHA is that blurb of jumbled text that you have to decode before entering some websites. Its purpose is to keep bots out of human-only internet territory. The irony is that a robot decides whether we’re human or not.
German artist Aram Bartholl’s 2009 “urban intervention” involved stenciling the CAPTCHA on walls and asking, “Are you human?” Bartholl observed, “In which form does this network-data-world really manifest itself in our physical everyday-life-space? What is being fed back into physical space from the ‘cyberspace’ into which data has been fed for so long now? How do these digital innovations influence our actions in everyday life?” (emphasis mine).
One answer to Bartholl’s question could be that we’re more likely to mistake human beings for robots. Just ask my one-time blog fan.
Photo by iwouldificould