How Far Can the Internet Go? First Come Socialbots, Then Robot Boyfriends

We've all been asked to enter text in a box online to prove we're human. We've all gotten annoying spam for some supposedly amazing herbal weight loss method. What is all this stuff, and where is it coming from? The answer, short and simple, is bots. These bots, or robotic programs, writes the New York Times, are an online automated presence that's become increasingly prevalent.

Bots are much more present than you might think. They account for more than half of internet traffic, and some researchers estimate that only 35 percent of the average Twitter user's followers are human. Sounds eerie? That's because it is. According to the New York Times, we're dealing with fully-fleshed personalities when it comes to these socialbots:

They have quirks, life histories and the gift of gab. Many of them have built-in databases of current events, so they can piece together phrases that seem relevant to their target audience. They have sleep-wake cycles so their fakery is more convincing, making them less prone to repetitive patterns that flag them as mere programs. Some have even been souped up by so-called persona management software, which makes them seem more real by adding matching Facebook, Reddit or Foursquare accounts, giving them an online footprint over time as they amass friends and like-minded followers.

Freaky. And the scariest part is, socialbots are now migrating to the online dating world. On dating websites, bots send flirty messages and "like" profiles. Christian Rudder, a co-founder and general manager of OkCupid, recently bought a smaller dating website, only to find it was full of bots. After the company redesigned this smaller dating website, real people traffic dropped by 15 percent — seems like users were sad to see the artificial flirtation go. “Love was in the air,” Rudder told the New York Times. “Robot love.”

But why toy with hearts like this? Not so surprisingly, the answer is money. Socialbots often use dating websites to get lonely singles to send money to other "singles" or to lure people toward pay-for-service pornography websites. Hmmm. So not only do we have to look out for real duds, but now we also have to make sure our online boyfriend is human?

Science fiction tells us that this is a phenomenon that could get out of hand. Filmmaker Spike Jonze is one step ahead of the robot dating curve. His upcoming movie Her has lonely Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) fall in love with computer operating system Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). A crazy science fiction romance film or just your next e-dating experience?

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Image: JD Hancock on Flickr