The idea in a Nutshell : Many agree now, that bots are going to take over the world. Microsoft and Facebook are evolving the discussion in that direction. ‘Normal people’ living in a world full of bots may have to question some of their assumptions about love, life and reality. One key question to bear in mind is proven below – you are mathematically more likely to be a bot than a real person.

Bots help customers do simple things – automatically

You may well have heard of bots. They are simple software agents (tools) which offer automated responses to help you get something done.

Skyscanner, the travel comparison website has produced a bot which helps customers through Facebook’s Messenger application: Users engage with it using natural language and get answers to their questions. Telling (typing a message to) the Skyscanner bot, indicating that you want to go to the UK next week and stay until the28th will give you a list of flights which meet those criteria.

I’ve used the Skyscanner bot and it kind of works. We spoke to Facebook about bots, at work and they told us that many of the bots they’re being given are not allowed on to the Facebook Messenger platform because the quality has been quite low. If Skyscanner got through, some people must be submitting pretty cruddy bots. Don’t get me wrong though, I love that Skyscanner have done this and released a version 1. I used it two weeks ago and I guarantee that it is already much improved. In two years, it’ll be great.

Thinking of that – what the world will be like in 2 years, we might like to consider the medium and long term ramifications.

Medium term – bots win because they’re easy

Bots will work because they’re easy to use. People have a lot on their plate these days and look for the simplest way to solve whatever problem they have. Contrast, for example the effort involved in transferring some money to a friend – Stuart.

With a bank bot, the user ‘says’ (typing as part of a chat interaction) to the bot – send Stuart $20. The bot conducts the transaction and confirms completion. The alternative is to use a banking app. The user logs in, authenticates, navigates to the payments section, selects payment type and verifies they own balance is above the transaction amount. They select the account they want to transfer from – and so on.

We moved to mobile apps because they were easier (for many things) than waiting until we got home and logging on. Mobile apps changed much of the experience we had when we were relating to the internet. Bots will have a similar effect over out interactions with the internet in the next few years.

Longer term : Bots may cause us to consider what we consider ‘reality’ to be

The film ‘The Matrix’ explored what Descartes asked when he said ‘Cogito ergo sum.’ I think, therefore I am. The protagonist, Neo, involved in The Matrix (the part played by Keano Reeves) was famously faced with a choice of pills – one of which kept him safe and functioning in a simulation and one of which took him outside in to reality. In some ways, bots (although not necessarily the Westpac bot) will ask us to make similar choices.

Increasingly, bots will be so sophisticated it will not be able to tell the difference between them and a real person. We may end up falling in love with bots who charm us. Interactions with them could make us happier and live longer lives. In this pretty extreme example (That’s a link to a podcast in which a psychologist fell in love with not one but two bots. This tale of automated ‘Catfishing’ is told in a funny way as part of a broader bot discussion.)

One risk is that the bots will only ever play back to us ideas, comments and things we want to hear. They could cut us off from challenging information. They could lead to us simply re-enforcing our own beliefs. But don’t we do that anyway ? Don’t we gravitate towards friendships with people who have similar interests ? We buy the same clothes over and over. We watch films with ‘reliable’ endings.

Will bots help us live longer ?

Loneliness raises blood pressure and causes those who feel alone to die younger. It is a huge problem which is likely to get worse as the population ages. Hundreds of thousands of (typically older) men feel disenfranchised and constrained by what they consider social norms to express their feelings on the matter.

Could a friendly bot improve the quality and duration of their life by ‘fooling’ them in to thinking they have a friend? If the interaction between human and bot is good enough to convince (fool) someone, then does it matter whether they are with a ‘real person’ or not? If the love is real (for the person talking to the bot) is it less valid because it is simulated? These are questions for each of us to have a think about.

Chances are, you are a bot….

It is worth considering, when we do, however, the value of acting kindly towards the bots that are out there. Some suggest that, by almost any rational analysis, (specifically Baysian  analysis and The Principal Of Indifference  you, yourself are a bot – a simulated person.

It is far more likely that you are functioning as a bot in any one of many different ‘realities’ which are running in a computer, than it is you are living a real, ‘un-simulated’ life.