With the elections done, let's take a look at one of the most prolific source of political tweets during the campaign period — bots. Yes, you may well have been retweeting or replying to bots. This isn't so terribly novel, but notably, they can seem as passionate as you are, and they have been given an AI upgrade.

A study published by researchers at the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute recently examined just how influential these bots were (and are). And according to the authors, Alessandro Bessi and Emilio Ferrara, their presence is profound. The sheer number of them is alarming. They found roughly 400,000 bots in Twitter, and they made a massive amount of tweets, which made them surprisingly capable of distorting online debate.

According to the study, these 400,000 bots were behind 20 percent of all election related tweets. They were tweeting and being retweeted at a remarkable pace.

Volume of bot tweets by state, generated between September 16 and October 21, 2016. Credits: Bessi & Ferrara

The power of AI

In an interview with MIT Technology Review, Ferrara notes that these bots were different because they were more complex and used "artificial intelligence [AI] to chat with people." Many people were none the wiser, failing to realize that they were debating with AI. "They can aggregate the sentiment in a polarized discussion and maybe even further polarize it," Ferrara adds.

As was mentioned, bots in social networking sites like Twitter are not new. What's interesting is how AI has made these bots better at what they do. Ferrara explains:

It had been easier to identify earlier bots, but now it’s incredibly difficult for a human to make a determination. I did a test on myself, and in some accounts there are signs that are clear, such as posting 1,000 tweets per hour. In others it’s more difficult. They look like they go to sleep [going offline for a prolonged period each day]. They tweet five, 10, 15 tweets in a row, and then none for an hour. They clone the behavior of people.

This shows the power of AI today, and how pervasive and ubiquitous these AI are becoming—because, of course, AIs aren't just active on Twitter; we find them everywhere. Some are trying to be journalists, some aim for lawyers, and then there are the self-driving cars. There are those that could even be filmmakers or, more recently, illustrators for book covers. Many AI applications are also helping to revolutionize medicine.

The benefit, or harm, is all in how we use them.

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