What’s a “bot”? Not long ago, the first response to the question might have been, “Which ‘bot’ did you have in mind?”
That’s because the word also refers to what’s known as a “Build-Operate-Transfer” (BOT) Contract — which is a way of financing large infrastructure projects.
But if people use the word “bot” today, chances are they have something else in mind: the internet variety.
An internet bot is a software application that runs automated tasks online, usually with the intent to imitate or replicate human activity, often on a large scale. Bots are used to carry out financial transactions, boost online engagement and increase efficiency in business. The idea is that these bots can perform certain tasks much faster than human beings.
Like much else in the world of digital technology, bots have both a huge potential to help and plenty of capacity to harm. And that’s just one of many reasons why “What’s a bot?” is certainly not a dumb question.
The answers are complicated — but fortunately we have Grid Technology Reporter Benjamin Powers on hand to help. As Powers notes, bots “can do almost anything,” and they “aren’t good or bad, just like technology isn’t inherently good or bad.” Lately, however, their problematic side has gotten a lot of attention — in particular the ways in which bots are used to amplify misinformation.
It can also be hard, Powers notes, to know online whether you’re dealing with a human or a bot if, as he puts it, “you’re just encountering one in the wild.”
We’d love to hear from you with other ideas for the series. We like to think there are no “dumb questions”; or put differently, that there’s almost nothing out there in the world of news and information that couldn’t use a little more clarity and context in terms of the answers. We also know that we have really smart readers and that even the smartest among them can’t be expected to have every shred of important context or background on all the events that are roiling the world at any given moment. Send your ideas and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.