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Software Agents Fight Unseen On The Web

The gentle, scholarly world of Wikipedia seems like the last place that autonomous software agents would engage in a corrective fight to the death.

“An increasing number of decisions, options, choices, and services depend now on bots working properly, efficaciously, and successfully,” say Taha Yasseri and pals at the University of Oxford in the U.K. “Yet, we know very little about the life and evolution of our digital minions.”

This raises an interesting question. How do bots interact with each other?

“We find that, although Wikipedia bots are intended to support the encyclopedia, they often undo each other’s edits and these sterile ‘fights’ may sometimes continue for years,” they say.

In particular, Yasseri and co focus on whether bots disagree with one another. One way to measure this on Wikipedia is by reverts—edits that change an article back to the way it was before a previous change.

Over a 10-year period, humans reverted each other about three times on average. But bots were much more active. “Over the 10-year period, bots on English Wikipedia reverted another bot on average 105 times,” say Yasseri and co.

..it shows how relatively simple bots can produce complex dynamics with unintended consequences. It is all the more concerning given that Wikipedia is a gated community where the use of robots is reasonably well governed.

The idea that autonomous "software agents" or "bots" would fight it out online is almost fifty years old.

In John Brunner's 1975 novel The Shockwave Rider, computer whiz Nickie Haflinger happened to offend a certain Shad Fluckner, an employee of Anti-Trauma, Inc. When Haflinger woke up in the morning to find his power out, he took steps to discover the source of the problem:

A sweet recorded voice told him his phone credit was in abeyance pending judgment in the lawsuit that was apt to end with all his assets being garnisheed...

Lawsuit? What lawsuit?...

Then the answer dawned on him, and he almost laughed. Fluckner had resorted to one of the oldest tricks in the store and turned loose in the continental net a self-perpetuating tapeworm, probably headed by a denuciation group "borrowed" from a major corporation, which would shunt itself from one nexus to another every time his credit-code was punched into a keyboard. It could take days to kill a worm like that, and sometimes weeks.

Being a full-service science fiction author, Brunner not only describes the problem, but also its solution - the counter-worm:

He sent a retaliatory worm chasing Fluckner's. That should take care of the immediate problem in three to thirty minutes, depending on whether or not he beat the inevitable Monday morning circuit overload.

It was a common problem, as described in the novel:

According to recent report, there were so many worms and counter-worms loose on the data-net now, the machines had been instructed to give them a low priority unless they related to a medical emergency.

Via Technology Review.

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