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Through the looking glass bot

Hacked & Burned: Meet the bots and AIs that are artists, lawyers, prison officers – and you

This week artificial intelligence startup Vicarious trumpeted that they've gazumped the CAPTCHA, the gold standard in sieving the spambot chaff from the human user. If this marks the death knell of CAPTCHAs, so be it: its ubiquity is a cruel joke on the notion of Alan Turing’s eponymous Turing Test - the idea that a computer would be deemed intelligent if it could con a human into believing the machine was human too. To riff on an a trope: we got the artificial intelligence we deserved, not the one we wanted (doubtless to the chagrin of cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstatder). Join me on a whistestop tour of the the uncanny valley of algorithmic interlopers, full of bots that resemble humans through the looking glass.

A spybot in your kettle

As irksome as CAPTCHAs are maybe we should be grateful for the mitigation measures. Witness this story of Russian malware that lurks in your household iron and kettle, waiting to exploit and infect WiFi routers who don’t have CAPTCHA-a-like immune systems for detecting malicious code.

Robots that win schoolyard games

Worse again – robots can beat us hands down at rock-paper-scissors! If we don’t find some way of filtering out the robots, we’ll never be able to beat them in time honoured human fashion.

Algorithms that can defend criminals

Sound the pre-crime klaxon - it seems that algorithms are intent on passing the bar! Eventually anyway. For now, they’re content to gorge on the existing law literature to date in an effort to learn the ropes through data mining, while cutting their teeth on busting people with speeding tickets.


An artificial friend for your kid

Robots that sense emotions are only a stones throw away from androids possessing fascimiles of our complex, emotional language. This Kickstarter for an "affordable social robot" is ideal for every parent who’s wondered “hey, wouldn’t it be great if my kid didn’t have to make any real friends? Put this in the time out corner of the uncanny valley – I just can't look at it any longer.

An AI that can compose music

Maybe CAPTCHAs will evolve into some sort of emblem for the technologically displaced workers and creative classes of the 21st century. Musicians should be fearful: not only is Spotify dispossessing them of a living wage, there are gargantuan artificial intelligences like Iamus capable of composing moving scores - so much so that a Musical Turing Test is now a thing!

A computer that can appreciate art

And it’s not just music that bots want to trump us at. In addition to the legion of robots that have algorithmically aped the giants of fine art, several ventures are determined to decode just why we enjoy art in the first place.


Though the CAPTCHA is a routed mechanism there is still hope – researchers are fast at work implementing imaginative alternatives to beat the burgeoning AI smarts that roam the internet. Witness the GOTCHA, which stands for “Generating panOptic Turing Tests to Tell Computers and Humans Apart” (no joke!). Extremely evocative of the Rorschach inkblot test, this can’t help but make me wonder what an algorithmic gestalt would resemble.

A robot prison officer 

And speaking of all-seeing panopticons, check out this physical robot that polices South Korean inmates, keeping tabs on their emotional wellbeing (for those of you playing Singularity Bingo at home: yes, you may now notch off “thought policing”).

A corporate clone of yourself

As unnerving as IRL automata are we really should be more concerned about where the identity spamming vector meets the R&D budgets of global corporations. Almost everyone of them has a finger in the pie broadly labelled ‘persona management’, or fake online identities. Amazon is silently judging you on your Kindle annotation entries. Cambridge University wagers it can conjure a facsimile of your personality based on your Facebook likes alone, with Microsoft claiming a patent on a strikingly similar concept. Facebook is training a behemoth AI project on teaching its machines to think like users. Apple has also patented a way for you to “clone” your digital identity.

Prejuiced algorithms

If the above made for disconcerting reading, then maybe you’ll like Mushon Zer-Aviv and Yonatan Ben-Simhon's Turing Normalizing Machine. The Machine is an experimental research in machine-learning that identifies and analyzes the concept of social normalcy. A poignant reflection on the dangers of human prejudice seeping into ostensibly ‘neutral’ algorithms, especially given Turing’s tragic suicide following his chemical castration for the ‘crime’ of homosexuality.

Spambots - not so human after all?

But just maybe all this algorithmic anxiety is premature – there's plenty of instances where bots aren't quite ready to walk on their own (just yet). And spam’s not all bad – just look at the erudite comments that media professor Ian Bogost has amassed down the years on his own blog posts (above). They're certainly more thought provoking than the average below-the-line Youtube fare!