from humans. The system went
from perceiving the world, to deciding what to do to accomplish its
goal, to modifying the world by
following and posting—just like a
physical robot [ 9].
The sense-think-act paradigm
is just one tool from traditional
robotics that we can bring to
socialbots. Because socialbots act
only in digital spaces, they bring
a unique opportunity to apply
artificial intelligence and robotics
theory in a world of near-perfect
truths. The other human agents
with which socialbots interact
may be difficult to predict, but
they are easy to observe.
With such a short history, computational social psychologists
and others studying social robots
would be wise to learn from the
decades of literature produced
by their peers studying physical
robots. Techniques in robotics sensor fusion may provide insight into
how to combine multiple sources
of information about the social
graph, giving deeper insight into
people’s connections. Concepts
from swarm robotics may give way
to armies of socialbots acting in
concert, aiding each other toward
their collective goal. Autonomous
agents are autonomous agents,
and whether they are operating in
the physical world or the digital
world, we’ll be seeing a lot more of
them in the future.
Greg Marra (@gregmarra) has a degree in electrical engineering with a focus in robotics at Olin
College and now works on Google+.
3. Securities and Exchange Commission. Findings
Regarding the Market Events of May 6, 2010; http://
4. Mirvish, D. The Hathaway Effect. The Huffington
Post (Mar. 2, 2011); http://www.huffingtonpost.com/
5. Gerber, A.S. et al. Social pressure and voter
turnout. American Political Science Review 102, 1
6. Dillow, D. Tired of repetitive arguing about climate change, scientist makes a bot to argue for
him. Popular Science (Nov. 3, 2010); http://
7. Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics; http://
8. Boshmaf, Y., Muslukhov, I., Beznosov, K., and
Ripeanu, M. The socialbot network: When bots
socialize for fame and money. Annual Computer
Security Applications Conference (Dec. 2011);
9. See Gepetto’s Army, SXSW 2011; http://www.
10. Pearce, I., Nanis, M., and Hwang, T. PacSocial:
Field test report; http://pacsocial.com/files/pacso-
11. Orcutt, M. Twitter bots create surprising new
social connections. Technology Review (Jan.
23, 2012); http://www.technologyreview.com/
plistic bots are able to reliably
generate some type of statisti-
cally significant change in the
behavior of an entire social group,
one might imagine that swarms
of these bots might be designed
to shape or reshape communities
on a very large scale, in what we
might call “social architecting.”
Early experiments have pro-
duced fascinating results. More
recent experiments have gener-
ated bots that are able to “super-
charge” the rate of new friendship
growth between users in a social
group on Twitter. These bots facili-
tate new human relationships by
introducing users to one another
and exposing them to content
from others with whom they do
not usually interact. This tends to
boost the rate of friendships that
emerge between human users
in those networks by a statisti-
cally significant margin, and the
effect is sometimes quite large.
In one case, a bot was able to
boost the regular rate of connec-
tion growth to more than three
times the normal rate [ 10, 11].
However, the future fate of this
technology remains an open question. The ethical considerations
of such research will become ever
more subtle and complex as the
socialbots themselves become
ever more sophisticated. However,
nearly all innovative technologies
represent double-edged swords.
While we should be mindful and
wary of potential abuses of such
technologies, we should also be
open to the potential benefits that
may arise through new opportunities promoted by socialbots.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Tim Hwang (@timhwang) is man-
aging partner of the Pacific Social
Architecting Corporation, a Bay
Area research and development
firm working on technology to
enable precise, large-scale auto-
mated social shaping.
Ian Pearce (@peeinears) is a
researcher and developer specializing in applications at the intersection of social psychology,
anthropology, and computing.
Max Nanis (@x0xMaximus) is a
computational biologist whose
research focuses on modeling
protein interactions and macromolecular structure visualization.
These articles represent a preliminary stage of research and
development in social robotics.
It is worthwhile to consider the
future scale and application of
socialbots as a more advanced
technology. Insofar as even sim-
March + April 2012
1. Wright, A. The social life of robots.
Communications of the ACM 55, 2 (Feb. 2012), 19-21.
2. Lauricella, T. and McKay, P. Dow takes a harrowing 1,010.14-point trip. Wall Street Journal (May 7,
© 2012 ACM 1072-5220/12/03 $10.00