Thousands of AI (artificial intelligence) bots crawl the Internet every second for purposes that range from collecting pricing information from competing e-commerce retailers to editing Wikipedia pages. And unknown to the average Internet user, there is a secret bot war going on over the Internet, involving the companies that employ such bots and the bots themselves.
The e-commerce bot war
Online retailers use AI bots to scrape their competitor websites in order to know the price charged for a particular product. This information allows them to adjust the pricing accordingly and offer a better deal to prospective customers.
Big e-commerce companies like Walmart and Amazon have dedicated departments that are tasked with scraping pricing data and adjusting the sales prices of similar products. Smaller e-commerce firms who may not have in-house scraping teams usually decide to outsource the task to experienced third parties.
Scraping presents opportunities and risks for e-commerce websites. While on one side, companies can use AI bots to scrape competitor pricing data, they also need to protect their own website from being scraped by competitors. This ensures that e-commerce companies have massive advantages when it comes to pricing the products.
Amazon is a perfect example of an e-commerce company that has essentially “weaponized” its AI bots to give accurate, timely pricing data of its competitors like Walmart. At the same time, the company has also installed measures to block Walmart from scraping their website so that the latter never know the real-time pricing of products sold at Amazon.
However, not all AI bots are “bad.” In fact, allowing bots to crawl through the website is necessary. Only then can the site be indexed by Google and other search engines. The difficulty faced by businesses is to determine which bots are good and which are bad.
“There’s really a lot of different scenarios where scraping is used on the internet for good, bad, or somewhere in the middle … We have a ton of customers at Akamai who have come to us to help us manage the overall problem of robots, rather than humans, visiting their site”, Wired quotes Josh Shaul, VP of web security at Akamai Technologies.
Bot battle at Wikipedia
It is not just e-commerce companies involved in AI bot wars. In fact, AI bots are fighting among themselves over various topics. A case in point is the much-documented bot battle on Wikipedia pages.
A few researchers looked into how AI bots interacted with each other during the first 10 years of Wikipedia. Though they were not expecting anything exciting, the team ended up discovering something that blew their minds.
“We had very low expectations to see anything interesting. When you think about them they are very boring… The very fact that we saw a lot of conflict among bots was a big surprise to us. They are good bots, they are based on good intentions, and they are based on the same open-source technology,” The Guardian quotes Taha Yasseri who was part of the study.
While the bot battle rages on over the Internet, keeping tabs on how the AI bots interact with one another could shed new light on how artificial intelligence might turn out to affect human lives. If the AI bots themselves argue with each other endlessly, then it should be logical to assume it might end up with the same behavior when interacting with human beings. This can easily lead to situations where the bots do completely opposite to human instructions and end up causing casualties. And that is something we will definitely wish to avoid.