The word bot is simply short for Robot. In recent years Internet bots (also known as WWW robot, webbot and web robot) have increased in popularity and usage, both within organisations and by individuals.
What are bots used for?
Examples of repetitive tasks a bot might carry out includes updating stock inventory on a website, posting a weekly blog update, checking search engine rankings, autoposting to social networks, trading on the stock exchange, trading or betting on sporting events, filling & submitting online forms, mass editing a website and much, much more.
Chatbots, an increasingly common form of bots, are programmed to simulate conversation. They often live inside messaging apps — or are at least designed to look that way — and it should feel like you’re chatting back and forth as you would with a human.
What is a bot?
A bot is a software application that runs automated tasks (scripts) over the Internet that have been coded by a computer programmer. Typically, bots perform tasks that are both simple and structurally repetitive, at a much higher rate than would be possible for a human alone.
What languages are bots coded in?
Bots can be coded in many different languages; every language comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. At the end of the day it does not matter if you opt to use C, C++, Visual Basic, Asp-Net, Ruby, PHP, Python, Java, UBot Studio or any other language as long as the language supports the communication using a network protocol such as http, https, ftp etc. Most of them do. Once you have mastered a programming language the botting world is your oyster.
VBScript is a scripting language based on the Visual Basic programming language and a relatively simple starting point for bot makers, but it can still make highly effective and robust bots. VB.net is far more advanced and than earlier versions of Visual Basic.
UBot Studio enables users to make software bots to automate browser operations and it offers developers a way to make bots in a drag and drop manner. Even simpler than using Visual Basic, you need no prior programming knowledge to make bots with UBot Studio or it’s competitor Zennoposter.
Python is open source and portable, with solid implementations on Mac OS, Linux and Windows, which means stable bots can be created that work cross-platform. Python has a rich set of third-party libraries that allow it to integrate with everything from Amazon S3 data stores to Google Maps. This is well supported code that you would otherwise have to write yourself.
PHP is also open source and a few years ago was a preferred choice for building webbots, spiders and screenscrapers. In recent years Python has taken over in popularity probably due to tighter security controls. PHP is fairly easy to learn and comes with many functions, which can be used to efficiently create webbots fast. However, PHP does suffer from processing limits and a lack of control over external scripts.
Nowadays many bots are made using .net and C#. UBot Studio itself is coded in C# and .net. The Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) allows information to be exchanged between a web server and a web browser. C# allows you to program HTTP directly and it is often the language of choice for many bot coders.
Delphi is not a particularly popular language, but it can make very robust and very fast bots. Delphi bots are not library dependant (DLL) and multi threading is reportedly easier with Delphi.
Are Bots Good or Bad?
As with everything, botting comes with a dark side and shaking off this murky exterior is no mean feat. Microsoft recently suffered a very public fail when it released it’s twitter chatbot that reeked havoc in a few short hours, offending millions with it’s racist and anti-Semitic rants.
Unfortunately Bots are one of the most sophisticated types of crimeware facing the Internet today. Bots are similar to worms and Trojans, but perform a wide variety of automated tasks on behalf of their cybercriminal masters.
Tasks that the bad bots perform include sending email spam, blasting websites with a coordinated “denial-of-service” attack to knock them offline completely and dating chatbots that trick vulnerable users into handing over their cash. Cybercriminals utilize bot networks, by sending out their armies of bots across the internet onto innocent individuals computers. These bots are then controlled by their master as and when they demand it. These victim machines are often referred to as “zombies.”
Bots sneak onto a person’s computer in many ways. Bots can spread themselves across the Internet by searching for vulnerable, unprotected computers to infect. When they find an exposed computer, they quickly infect the machine and then report back to their master. Their goal is then to stay hidden until they are awoken by their master to perform a task. Bots are so quiet that sometimes the victims first learn of them when their Internet Service Provider tells them that their computer has been spamming other Internet users. Sometimes a bot will even clean up the infected machine to make sure it does not get bumped off of the victim’s computer by another cybercriminal’s bot.
Other ways in which a bot infects a machine include being downloaded by a Trojan, installed by a malicious Web site or being emailed directly to a person from an already infected machine.
The Bad Bots do not work alone, but are part of a network of infected machines called a “botnet.” Botnets are created by attackers and used to repeatedly infect victim computers using one or several of the techniques mentioned above. Each one of the zombie machines is controlled by a master computer called the command and control server. From the command and control server, the cybercriminals manage their botnets and instructs the army of zombie computers to work on their behalf. A botnet is typically composed of a large number of victim machines that stretch across the globe, from the Far East to the United States and Europe. Some botnets might have a few hundred or a couple of thousand computers, but others have tens and even hundreds of thousands of zombies at their disposal.
Bots have also been known to be used in online gaming, such as poker, roulette and Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games to farm for resources that would otherwise take significant time or effort to obtain; this is a concern for most online casinos and in-game economies.
Bots are also used to sneakily gain an advantage in many widely known websites such as increasing views for YouTube videos, increasing traffic counts on analytics reporting to extract money from advertisers and inflating social media likes.
Who is building these bots?
Apart from the cybercriminals building the ‘bad bots’, many of the same companies that build the apps that you use daily on your mobile phones are also building the next generation of ‘good bots’, including Microsoft and Slack.
Google, although very big on ‘AI’ (artificial intelligence) and with access to astronomical consumer data, outwardly appears to be slightly behind the times in it’s bot making efforts, but that is surely all set to imminently change as it is rumoured to be building a chatbot that will live in a mobile messaging product.
‘Google Now’ is a personal assistant system built within Android, which serves many functions of the new wave of bots, it is still not working ideally, but the big G are continuously experimenting.
As well as the big boys, there are many small businesses and individuals specialising in bot creation. The UBot Studio forum has a number of established bot makers that have built a stellar reputation for themselves over the years, continuously updating their skills and knowledge in all aspects of bot programming. Coders can also be found on black hat sites and online freelance marketplaces such as Upwork.
Where and when did bots originate?
Bots have actually been on the go for more than 50 years. The classic historic early chatterbots are ELIZA (1966) and PARRY (1972), which were exclusively used to simulate typed conversation, many chatterbots now include functional features such as games and web searching abilities. With the recent global boom in mobile messaging apps, such as Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger and Slack, they’re seen as increasingly relevant. The first bots on Twitter started appearing in 2006 and UBot Studio, the bot making application, was launched in 2009.
Why are bots so talked about right now?
Bots are powered by artificial intelligence and artificial intelligence software is rapidly improving, enabling computers to process language and actually converse with humans in ways that were never previously possible. This recent interest in AI has been heightened in thanks to key Silicon Valley powers like Facebook and Google.
Facebook’s Interest in Bots
Facebook has 900 million Messenger users, which is why Facebook is now hotly tipped to get into bots in a big way.
At Facebook’s annual developer conference F8 in San Francisco, Facebook Messenger boss David Marcus announced the launch of the Messenger platform, which is designed to enable developers around the world to build chat bots for their messenger app. He then went on to showcase three types of “bots” – which appear similar to friends within the app, with which you can exchange text messages to perform a task.
Facebook hopes to build machine learning into these messenger bots so that they learn user preferences over time – what types of items you like to buy, what news stories you prefer, your favourite movies, what chocolates you like and so on.
This rich data is a goldmine for a service like Facebook which is sustained by advertising. “We are testing if business bots can re-engage people on threads with sponsored messages, it’s a small tiny test,” Marcus said. In other words, Facebook may ultimately let brands contact you independently through Messenger, if they think you may be persuaded – a whole new era of targeted advertising.
The increase in screen use, smartphones and consumer technology has resulted in people becoming less tolerant and much more impatient, particularly when it comes to shoddy customer service. Social media has brought the consumer in direct contact with the brands, helping to streamline conversations and now bots can automate them. For continued success, it is of course vital that this is done right, with compassion and consideration for the customer, otherwise it could seriously backfire.
Slack’s Interest in Bots
Slack brings all your communication together in one place. It is real-time messaging, archiving and search for modern teams and naturally lends itself to bot-based services. Slack has also grown dramatically to two million daily users, which bot makers and investors see as a potentially lucrative market. Messaging is seen as a fresh opportunity, especially for interacting with a corporation in the same personal space that you would traditionally interact with a friend.
How do bots differ from apps? Are they better?
Bots are officially taking over from apps as the primary way we communicate with our phones.
Part of the current obsession with bots is driven by a perceived fatigue with apps — so developers and companies are looking to bots as a new path to reach consumers.
But bots won’t kill apps anytime soon. It’s more likely they could replace parts of some apps, especially where there’s some sort of complex transaction involved or customer service. The downside of bots is that they’re often one-dimensional.
It is likely that companies that choose to build bots will do so in addition to the app that they have or the service they provide.
What is the main business appeal for bots?
Subscriptions, advertising and commerce all provide potential revenue streams for bots. If bots are designed to save you time that you’d normally spend on mundane tasks or interactions, it is possible that consumers would happily justify the subscription fee in return for the bot. Developers may incorporate advertising into the bot interface or if a bot helps you to shop online, then the programmer could implement a commission based feature.
Big-wig Bot hosting platforms such as Facebook and Slack potentially stand to make money from companies that want to promote their bot to new users. Or at least from getting people to spend more time with their services, if these bots are advanced and stable enough to prove useful.
Part of the appeal of bots is that they simply automate things that companies are currently paying humans to do. So some of the monetary value may be more about saving running costs than generating new revenue streams.