Talking to Robots

1 creationI received an email yesterday (actually a blog ‘comment’) that really made me think. First of all, I didn’t know the sender at all: his name was nmvlvcgniz, writing from gmail. He, or someone like him (or her) has written before, and always says the same thing. I usually delete these messages, but yesterday I thought about it first.  nmvlvcgniz seems to be writing for the benefit of WordPress, who host my blog, and for Google the search engine.

These two companies advertise a lot, but why ask me to contribute to their economic success? Well, it turns out that nmvlvcgniz is a spambot. A spambot (spam robot) is a string of code written by a human computer programmer designed to find host websites or email addresses on the web, add them to a mailing list, and send out unsolicited advertising emails, usually called spam.

Now I haven’t read a spam email for years. I don’t rely on a spam filter, or on my ISP, to divert them. I delete them on arrival, usually within seconds, without reading them. The header is enough to alert me. On my blog WordPress use a filter which destroys about 100 spam a day directed to my WordPress pages. Apparently blog sites are particularly favoured by spambots.

(I’m getting adept at not seeing advertisements on web pages too, especially if they wink at me. I just overlook them: selective seeing).

Spam of course is one of the main problems for the internet infrastructure. Spam is said to form over 90% of the total email traffic, to number trillions per day, and to cost internet users billions of dollars every year. And it is ineffective. Spam email in particular sells almost no product according to those who study such things, probably because almost everyone uses a spam filter (which I think create their own problems, the reason why I don’t use one). Spam is a criminal con act that falsely tells companies it will make them a profit. Why does it work? Because some companies with product to sell are gullible, because conmen are plausible, because no-one looks to long term effects. We have spam for the same reason we burn rain forest or prostitute children. And I suppose we’ll have it until the cost gets too much and the internet has to cease to be world wide. Programmers who write spambots are the same sort of people who write viruses or send out trojans or loggers to mine other people’s computer data. It’s easy to do, doesn’t cost them anything (they can do it while being paid to do more productive work), and is as entertaining as any computer game. It’s not quite sane, but hey, it’s not the mad who worry about insanity.

There’s even ‘christian’ spam, made by the same people who take up internet space to preach hate, destruction and damnation and who of course are as far from being Christian as it is possible to be.

The curse of the internet is that people can send messages other people don’t want to receive (perhaps like this blog entry). Advertisements, requests for bank details or credit card numbers, proposals, porn, it’s a long list. And there’s not much response. The calls go out because it’s so easy to make them, not because it’s hugely profitable to do so. It’s hamburger wrapping floating on the freeway, it’s the sound of silence, and it’s very sad.

So I received a spam email. That’s not worth writing about, and it’s not what I want to say. Deleting spam is a tiresome job all internet users perform every day. But I was intrigued by the content of this particular spam.

2 future of computers

It was about SEO, an anagram that stands for search engine optimisation. The assumption of this particular communication was that writers should not write for other people to read, but for search engines, which are computer programs. This is an understandable point of view for a spam, also a computer program, to have.

In effect, one computer program is attempting to use me to talk to another computer program.

Now, the internet is all about communication, even though people seem to think it is all about selling. Advertisers in all media use the insecurities of their market, especially their sexual insecurities and feelings of inadequacy, to suggest that buying a product will alleviate these self doubts, and internet marketing is no different. Of course buying anything won’t affect anyone’s self doubts for longer than a few seconds. But the suggestion always works. Self doubt springs eternal in the human breast. So does hope. So does gullibility.

When an advertiser suggests to you that their product will make you a more loved person, they are communicating something very personal indeed.

In fact the technology of communication is what the internet is more and more about. We have social networking sites like LINE and Facebook (and dozens more), usenet is still going strong, blogging, newsfeeds, instagrams, media sharing and messaging sites. So much to choose from, yet so little to say.

The point I am making here is that internet communities are not ‘real’ communities. Real communities are made up of people who know each other in different contexts, not just as a function of the one they join. For example, people in a chess club will talk of their parents’ illness or of films or books they’ve seen or read, not just play chess. That’s the real reward of such communities.

Online communities have no such contexts. They start with false representation, an ‘avatar’ or fake photo that makes them look better, a name that conceals their identity, a point of view not necessarily their own, and attempt to gain the esteem of others in the group. That’s not a good foundation for communication. A bit like joining a lonely hearts club and sending a photo of yourself as a teenager and claiming to be rich and successful. Both parties could be very disappointed indeed when they meet (depending on how gullible each one is).

I’m not suggesting that all attempts at online communication are fragile. I read a software review site every day and find the interaction between members valuable. Others find many gaming sites useful, especially ones with those posters who pass on hints or ‘cheats’. But on many sites the communication is fragile, paradoxically because all parties know that these sites are penetrated by phishers and spammers. When some communicators are computer robots, then humans are vulnerable to being used by computer programs for their own ends. That’s a Philip K Dick theme seen in many of his books, such as the 1953 story “Second Variety” in which the conduct of a war is perpetuated by machines, after all the humans have been killed.

3 touchscreen

In nmvlvcgniz’ communication, the message is that what I have to say won’t be heard unless I go up the search engine result ladder. The assumption is that people will respond automatically and favourably to the first search result they see. Well, that’s a prejudice understandable in a computer program. Computer programs presumably don’t think highly of humans because humans are written with so much bad code, responsible for much of their unprogrammed behaviour.

But, being logical for a moment, what happens when everyone uses the suggestions nmvlvcgniz makes? Everyone will be at the head of the search engine ranking. Won’t that be the same as it is now? nmvlvcgniz is just like human advertisers. He (or she) is trying to use my insecurity at not being heard to make me buy something; that will make, I realise, only an illusory difference.

Google (and other search engines: you remember the others of course?) try to keep the algorithm of their search engine ranking a secret. They frequently revise it in awareness that advertisers sometime crack the code and try and sell formulae to websites which it is claimed will improve their ranking. This is a problem for anyone who uses a search engine. Unless you use precise search requests you will always get inaccurate and misleading results, often finding relevant sites only on second or third pages. Sites that use SEO insert themselves inappropriately, as for instance, when searching for an author or singer, a site will tell you when you visit it that it does not have any work by that person. Even precise search criteria will often give inaccurate results unless further refined. On the one hand this makes you learn proper searching techniques. On the other hand it can result in a too precise term yielding no results. As so much information is on the internet, and so much only obliquely relevant to your search, a fuzzy search is still the most productive.

So it turns out that nmvlvcgniz’ suggestions are not to my benefit at all. They are really for the Google search engine’s benefit. Paradoxically Google doesn’t seem to want others to use these suggestions, and keeps changing the rules. But what can you expect when computer programs talk to one another. Humans are just the meat in the sandwich.

Seriously, this is the big problem in our society. How to use computers. How to avoid being used by computers. Computers are intelligent. But their intelligence is different to human intelligence. They speak binary, for example. That’s a precise code made up of 0s and 1s. In a computer’s world it’s WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). It’s GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). It’s logical, but logical in a precise sense that’s different from the human science of logic, which deals with abstractions and imponderables.

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Human language is imprecise, ambiguous. It’s not saying what you mean or not meaning what you say, but only sometimes, and for no known reason. It’s influenced by other languages (including computer languages), emotions, most of all by unexpressed thoughts. So in talking to a computer the first thing to learn is to say what you mean. Don’t assume. Don’t take for granted. It’s hard to do, and even the attempt gets us in trouble. We ruin our relationships by our imprecision. Sometimes the attempt to communicate with a computer can teach us how to talk to humans. It’s not really as simple as that, because human communication thrives on suggestion, metaphor, imagination, fantasy. The sublimest communication between people is really poetry, even though not in verse.

But the contrast shows us that the difference between the two languages, human and computer, can be used against us. We can create fake communication, as some do on Facebook. And we can be manipulated by spambots. And we can fail to learn anything about human communication skills. That would make us very unhappy, prone to spend as much time on the internet, communicating to computers in simple logical mode, leaving our human communities behind for some more artificial satisfaction.

It’s a battle internet users fight every day. Computers make us communicate in a different way to language and personal contact. Emails are different to conversation, different to messaging, to blogging, to commenting on music or photos.  The media is the message (that has to be “the media IS the message” because italic is not as effective on a computer as it is in a book). Log-ins: we have so many passwords we need a password manager. And yet how risky is having a password manager? A phisher’s delight. What if the password manager software is sold to you by a phisher? CAPTCHAs: we need them on download sites, but spammers have been known to crack them. What else will work to separate the spam program from the human? Viruses: we all need to disinfect the hard drive on a regular basis. Now we need to worry about key logging, infestation by a trojan or worm which can record private data and transmit it to others. Even anti-spyware software doesn’t always work effectively against this threat.

The best defence is to be poor. “When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose”, as Bob Dylan put it in Like a Rolling Stone. This is an aim Apple Computers and Microsoft are always trying to help us with. There is a choice after all. Give your money to the big corporations before the phishers can take it. Mind you, a growing percentage of the human population is becoming poor, or poorer. The remainder risk having their evolution adapted. Becoming a computer adapted human, able to talk to computers but not effectively to other humans. Maybe HG Wells was right when he wrote The Time Machine: the Morlocks and Eloi are on the way.

5 girl computer

It seems that every problem can be its own solution, at least sometimes. It seems worthwhile trying to communicate to computers rather than leaving them to communicate with us. In passive mode you only end up with spam. Or a computer that doesn’t work. It would help to have some objective when you use a computer. Many people don’t. They use a computer to send collections of funny animal photos to one another, or to collect ‘friends’ on Facebook. These are the vulnerable ones, the consumers. When travelling, it’s best to have a destination. That way, you know whether you’re lost or not.

©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


3 thoughts on “Talking to Robots

  1. Spam is obvious if you delete it yourself and not leave the job to a spam filter with various, sometimes inaccurate, ‘rules’ for handling spam. It’s unsolicited, trying to sell you something, usually something you don’t need (like ways to increase your sexual potency), offers you a fabulous sum of money, tells you there’s something wrong with your computer or with your various online account settings, and so on.

    When I want to buy something I prefer to research costs myself, and wouldn’t dream of spending money somewhere with no attested customer record and site security. I don’t believe in the free sample or the special offer. And I usually have so little money I have to think twice before spending it.

    Any mail that asks for your credit card number, passwords or banking details is usually from a criminal. The million dollars they have smuggled out of Nigeria and want to put in your account doesn’t exist, and neither does the lottery first prize you didn’t realise you had a ticket in. The customer always pays for the special or sale item savings and nobody in business stays in business by giving things away. People who say different are suspicious.

    So there are some indications:
    unknown sender
    known sender acting suspiciously (Paypal for instance asking me to confirm my card number, or WordPress asking me to email my card details to get a special deal)
    irrelevant product: heart attack cure, longevity pills etc
    special offer to good to be true.

    Bear in mind your computer security can be over ridden by some software devices and quite a bit about you retrieved by others, should they have the inclination to so so. As I said, poverty is the best defence.

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