Admittedly, I’ve been just a wee little bit unfair on the Filipino men who fell for the recent Maria Ozawa hoax. Sign-up scams have been around for as long as the history of mass communication itself. I remember as a child reading about how a clever ad was placed on an American newspaper in the 1950’s which simply read out “Don’t delay! Send in your $5 NOW!” and had a P.O. Box number below it. Many chumps actually went out and did exactly that.
As a kid, whenever I had a friend or two at our place for a weekend sleep over, our idea of midnight fun was to randomly pick out a name from a telephone directory and dial the lucky person’s number. (Yes, we literally dialled it. And for those born after 1995, a telephone directory is a big thick book made of paper with a list of people’s names and their telephone numbers.) We’d then start a nutty conversation with whoever answered on the other end. Usually we would start the conversation with “Pwede bang makipag phone pal?” (“Would you like to be my phone pal?”)
To digress a bit, did you know that a lady by the name of Nancy Cartwright performs the voice of Bart Simpson on the hit television show The Simpsons? There is a point to the digression. The voice of an eleven year old boy is not much different from a girl’s (that said, maybe my voice today still isn’t). Ok, so in time, mine and my friends’ eleven year old minds soon worked out why most of the male winners of our midnight phone lottery draws gave us the time of night. Thank God caller ID back then wasn’t the technological banality it is today as, suffice to say, we must have broken a lot of Dirty Old Men’s hearts in those days. In most instances, we couldn’t help but break into a gaggle of laughter within a minute or two of the poor sod on the other end of the line taking the bait.
During more decent times of the day, we also took up the challenge of trying to have a steam roller delivered to our school grounds. But we weren’t that good. Baiting lonely Filipino studs proved to be far too easy in comparison to other stunts that would’ve earned us more cool creds with the other kids in school. The real challenge was sounding like a legitimate business query on the phone. Obviously our pre-pubescent voices didn’t work for us too well in that endeavour.
Fast forward to today. The technology has changed, but the games haven’t. The prey, however, is easier pickin’. Whereas a conventional phone call ties you up one-to-one with your “victim” over the time period you have him or her engaged, a cleverly-wielded email or social media account can reel in a catch that is orders of magnitude bigger in size. For the more tech-savvy, entire sites using cutting-edge technology have commercialised the business over vast scales. For petty pranksters and scammers, off-the-shelf technology and social media accounts are like Stinger surface-to-air missiles wielded by scruffy Afghan Mujahideens.
It can be argued that the modern business of targetted online advertising and marketing came about under the same underlying principles. Online services such as search engines and social networking sites now dominate most peoples’ online time. The very nature of how they are used, requires users to inadvertently leave data trails that, if aggregated and analysed properly can reveal personal preferences and inclinations useful to marketers.
But the online advertising industry is mature and the products are rapidly commoditising. Artificial intelligence (AI) now holds the promise of paving the way into the next frontier of online marketing. While targetted online adveritising passively collects data and infers consumers’ buying preferences, chatbots (programs that are intelligent enough to engage humans in a conversation) can be potentially deployed by the millions to infest social networking sites to actively seek out potential customers — or victims — and directly influence their behaviours.
While “sockpuppet” accounts have been trolling discussion forums and trawling suckers on Facebook for some time now, these are still limited by their very human controllers who still have to perform the same sort of telephone chat-up we did back in the 70’s. With the human component removed, chatbots can revolutionise all this. Indeed, the latest geek and gadget freak craze is not a piece of hardware. It is an application system — a chatbot that has finally made its way into the most personal of computer hardware — your mobile phone.
Is Siri really your “personal assistant” as what the clever marketing pitch of Apple would like you to believe? Perhaps it is the other way around…
Despite her advanced AI brain and top-notch search engine tether to the Net, however, Siri is certainly not one of the more sophisticated of chatbots. The numerous YouTube videos of quaintly charming Siri gaffes that infest cyberspace attest to this. Yet she manages to charm and wow the world’s technologically beholden rabble. Think about it. If a technological ditz like Siri could raise such a noisy chatter over the Net, what sort of damage could a chatbot with the people skills of, say, Ellen DeGeneres do?
If you think conmen and paedophiles are today’s biggest problems, think again. The really scary chatbots — the sorts that can perform Jedi Mind Tricks on weak minds (pretty much 95 percent of humanity with money to spend) — are hopefully still digital embryos gestating in a Silicon Valley or MIT laboratory. But they won’t be confined within these labs for long. Once let loose and developed into virus-grade applets, they can be sending you “friend” requests and chatting you up on Facbook soon, convincing you to upgrade to the next $300 must-have gadget that its cousin may already be inhabiting, or luring you to a subscription-only Maria Ozawa website.
I think Rise of the Planet of the Apes got it all wrong and the Terminator series was off by lightyears. The next terrestrial intelligence won’t be living within a chimp’s or killer robot’s brain. They’ll be living in iPhone and Android devices and coordinating amonst themselves over the Net to organise their grand plans at world domination and the ultimate enslavement of carbon-based humanity.