"Bot." It's not uncommon to be familiar with the term, but have trouble defining it. What is a bot, and why should you care?

In the broadest of senses, the type of bot we're referring to is simply any kind of software that runs automated tasks run over the internet. But as you might imagine, this is a big umbrella that covers beneficial and malicious technology alike.

UPGRADE TO NEW ATLAS PLUS

More than 1,500 New Atlas Plus subscribers directly support our journalism, and get access to our premium ad-free site and email newsletter. Join them for just US$19 a year.

UPGRADE

Search engines use bots to crawl the web and archive new pages for future searchability – this is one of the most important, positive, and far-reaching bot examples. But bots are also used for malicious purposes, like transmitting computer viruses or artificially increasing views on YouTube videos or web articles. And with the recent rise of chatbots – and the increasing amount of artificial intelligence behind them – bots are increasingly frequenting the headlines.

What is a chatbot?

AI and voice recognition technologies have precipitated a crop of so-called "chatbots" and virtual assistants. Siri is a bot, as is Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft's Cortana. But the list is getting longer and more specialized. Starbucks has introduced a chatbot barista; Taco Bell joined forces with Slack to introduce the TacoBot.

Last year, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella made the bold assertion that "bots are the new apps." At the time, that claim sounded shaky to all of us who have told off Siri or simply prefer to interact in other ways. By and large, the mixed attitude toward the importance of bots hasn't changed, as the underlying technology hasn't evolved much since then.

Why do bots matter?

Apart from the adage that knowledge is power, there are several reasons to get educated about bots.

Whether bots become the primary way we interface with technology remains to be seen. But what seems to be certain, however, is that bots will become increasingly capable. Even if they don't overtake the way we use our personal devices, they will bear an increasing amount of behind-the-scenes work.

"Alexa" is the name given to Amazon Echo's virtual assistant (Credit: Will Shanklin/New Atlas)

Bots are important because they offer a number of benefits. Automating inefficient tasks frees up human time and resources. Bots are already helping us clean our floors, enhance elder care, conduct business and so much more. If a bot is useful enough, it's worth paying for, and that's good news for both the businesses that create them and the consumers that enjoy their conveniences.

However, there are important complications and downsides to understand. As bots and the AI backing them become more powerful and pervasive, it introduces an increasing amount of sociological concerns. What will happen if bots automate our jobs? Or if they work incorrectly, or even spiral out of control?

In the near future, an understanding of bots is essential for applying critical thinking to the world around us. For instance, spotting bots is one aspect of battling internet-age problems like fake news.

What are bots up to right now?

Apart from the major bots – Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa – you may want to experiment with some of the more experimental, emerging bots out there. Check out the following examples, or perform a search on Botlist.

CNN, a news bot. Get personalized news updates based on your reading history, or ask it about a special topic. Available for Facebook Messenger or Amazon Echo.

Swelly, an "opinion collector." If you have an A-or-B type question, you can create a "Swell" to find out the popular opinion on the objects at hand. Submit photos of the two options, and Swelly will collect users' opinions on the two options. For iOS, Kik, Facebook Messenger and Telegram.

PayPal, for Slack. If you're a Slack user, you can use this handy tool to send money back and forth via PayPal using a shortcode.

View gallery - 2 images