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The divine witches of cyberspace

Fortune-telling games help us fumble toward deeper truths, at the junction of technology and mysticismRead the rest

Tell these games what's wrong

keyboardddddd

New text-based browser games by Caelyn Sandel and Lydia Neon ask searching questions we may prefer not to answer. I have a hard time being honest with these bots, even though they promise to help.

For lots of us, digital space is more than just a practical tool -- it's a sense of home. When younger many of us were drawn to games, technology and other interactive experiences because of the magic and mystery about who might be sharing those spaces with us. A blinking cursor is like a living thing; our 1990s were lush with weird virtual spaces.

It's now a place where we consistently explore identities and boundaries in nebulous online groups, which can be complicated depending on who you are. If you ever need help with that, Caelyn Sandel's BECCAA 0.8 project is there -- you seek BECCAA out if you're having feelings about something someone made or did online, and it asks you questions and gives you responses that help you process your mood. In between, it offers provocative quotes on feminism, which in itself offers interesting context to consider the structures in which we need support.

Lydia Neon's Player 2 is a forgiveness engine -- you tell it about a specific person and your interpersonal conflict with them, and, among other things, Player 2 helps you decide how you feel about the situation and what, if anything, you want to do about it.

There's something incredibly poignant and disconcerting about having a game talk about a person with you. It challenges your trust in a system, to lay it all out like that -- even though Player 2 promises utter privacy, BECCAA does remember a few of your responses and gets to know you.

Do you trust games with your deepest fears, and to keep your secrets? Try them.

Finally, you can sext with a bot

sextmachine

What would visitors from space think if they saw your sexts? Nonsense words accompanied by alien knobs of human flesh -- the creases, the arresting hairs and things. Would it turn them on?

Now you can sext with a bot and try to arouse it. The prolific Mike Walker has developed Sext Machine, "an SMS-based game exploring the frailty of algorithms and human sexuality." You send it fleshy pictures and sexts until you can convince it that it's doing something hot.

Ideally you don't send it actual nudes -- the ruddy floret to the left of your knee, maybe, or a close-up of the rude, hard tendon at the back of your heel, and you see if the bot thinks it's hot. "I was interested in exploring all of the little arbitrary things about human sexuality that make perfect sense to us, but would seem completely arbitrary and foreign to an alien species or something unfamiliar with humanity," Walker tells me.

"I was really excited about experimenting with the form of human-algorithm interaction that's at the core of the game," he says. "This isn't an experience where you consume a bunch of pre-written content, or explore some sort of consciously-designed game system. You're just interacting with a pure algorithm, and one that was designed with no intention of being appropriated this way (I'm using a nudity-detection service meant mostly for businesses who run sites that allow upload of user-generated content)."

Sext Machine also intends to prompt the player to think about and interact with their own body in a new and different light. For those that love bots and want to send actual nudes, Walker warns he's using a service called Twilio to handle SMS and MMS -- and Twilo automatically stores everything, as much as he wishes this could be a private experience. "I definitely do not intend to share the photos with anyone, but if people want to experiment with actual nudity it's probably sensible to avoid anything identifiable," he says.

Get started now: Text ';)' to (669) 333-SEXT (7398) to play. The game is free but your carrier might charge for messages or picture transmissions, depending. Oh, and if you want to play a game about sexting with a different bot, go here.

Social graph of mysterious twitterbots


Terence Eden has mined the social graphs of thousands of mysterious, spammy twitterbots, which may or may not be the same larval spambots I wrote about.

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Imaginary ISIS attack on Louisiana and the twitterbots who loved it


Gilad Lotan has spotted some pretty sophisticated fake-news generation, possibly from Russia, and possibly related to my weird, larval twitterbots, aimed at convincing you that ISIS had blown up a Louisiana chemical factory.

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What's up with these incredibly prolific twitterbots?


Old, highly-retweeted tweets in which I was @'ed keep getting RT'ed by fake twitterbots whose profile photos, bios and names are randomly composited from other Twitter users; they follow each other and spawn at an alarming rate.

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Twitterbot generates North Korean patriotic slogans with Markov chains


The 300 weird patriotic slogans that North Korea released last week had the stilted feel of machine-generated text.

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Hideous $10,000 plastic Christmas tree


Grad writes, "While cruising Amazon looking for some new Christmas tree magic for my family, I ran across what must be the world's most expensive Christmas tree."

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Tldrbot: great works of literature in seconds

Tldrbot is the latest bot from Shardcore (previously, previously, previously) that slurps up great novels, algorithmically summarizes them to 1% of their length, then spits out audio files of a synthetic Scottish woman's voice reading those summaries aloud.

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The weird, wild world of Twitter bots

The NY Times' Nick Bilton took a deep dive into the world of Twitter bots, and even created his own army of Twitter bots (which the Twitter overlords murdered as soon as th article went live).

My Twitter bots resemble real people, with photos for avatars and bios. Meet Fabiola Shaffer: She is pretty, has long brown hair, is a writer and researcher in New York and loves chocolate. Karri B. Segal is a sophisticated woman in her mid-50s, works in advertising in New York and likes Etsy. Rick Engbarg is a tuxedo-wearing rocket scientist who freelances at SpaceX and lives in San Francisco.

Never mind that they don’t exist (and their accounts have since been suspended), figments of a few lines of computer code. I can command them to retweet certain topics (like chocolate or Ebola), favorite a tweet or follow anyone who follows them. Compared with most bot collections, which number in the tens of thousands and are often called bot farms, my enclave of 20 bots is more like a bot petting zoo.

Social Media Bots Offer Phony Friends and Real Profit

Eliza vs Gamergate


When some genius set up a 1960s non-directive chatbot psychotherapist to reply to #notyourshield tweets, hilarity ensued!

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Bffbot1 loves you as only an algorithmic entity can


@bffbot1 is the latest weird-ass crazy awesome Twitterbot from Shardcore.

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Factbot: a bot that spouts viralish, truth-sounding lies


Shardcore, who gave us the programatically generated Hipsterbait tees, had advanced the art of autonomous, self-perpetuating Internet memes, with @factbot1, a bot that creates true-sounding, viral-ish lies ("Indonesians always turn left when exiting a cave", "In just one drop of Sesame seeds, 50 million bacteria can be present", "Morels were used as a Sesame seeds substitute during the Norwegian Civil War"). Here's an essay that explains the project:

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Crazy copyright bot threatens those who tweet tiny poem

This has to be some kind of brilliant hoax: a Twitter 'attribution troll' is showering threats on anyone who tweets a popular one-line poem.

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Amazon.com's many bots feud over book-prices

Carlos Bueno, author of a kids' book about understanding computers called Lauren Ipsum, describes what happens when the cadre of competing bots that infest Amazon's sales-database began to viciously fight with one another over pricing for his book. It's a damned weird story.

Before I talk about my own troubles, let me tell you about another book, “Computer Game Bot Turing Test”. It's one of over 100,000 “books” “written” by a Markov chain running over random Wikipedia articles, bundled up and sold online for a ridiculous price. The publisher, Betascript, is notorious for this kind of thing.

It gets better. There are whole species of other bots that infest the Amazon Marketplace, pretending to have used copies of books, fighting epic price wars no one ever sees. So with “Turing Test” we have a delightful futuristic absurdity: a computer program, pretending to be human, hawking a book about computers pretending to be human, while other computer programs pretend to have used copies of it. A book that was never actually written, much less printed and read.

The internet has everything.

This would just be an interesting anecdote, except that bot activity also seems to affect books that, you know, actually exist. Last year I published my children's book about computer science, Lauren Ipsum. I set a price of $14.95 for the paperback edition and sales have been pretty good. Then last week I noticed a marketplace bot offering to sell it for $55.63. “Silly bots”, I thought to myself, “must be a bug”. After all, it's print-on-demand, so where would you get a new copy to sell?

Then it occured to me that all they have to do is buy a copy from Amazon, if anyone is ever foolish enough to buy from them, and reap a profit. Lazy evaluation, made flesh. Clever bots!

Then another bot piled on, and then one based in the UK. They started competing with each other on price. Pretty soon they were offering my book below the retail price, and trying to make up the difference on "shipping and handling". I was getting a bit worried.

Sidebar: Lauren Ipsum sounds so interesting, I've just ordered a copy to read to my daughter!

How Bots Seized Control of My Pricing Strategy (via JWZ)