The growing impact of bots on the economy

3 min read

Anyone who has ever typed anything into the Google search box has used a ‘bot’ – sending Google’s web-crawling bot on an algorithm-driven hunt around the internet.

Googlebot, the search-engine bot (or “spider”) scans, finds, adds and indexes new web pages, building and honing the searchable index for the Google Search engine.

A ‘bot’ – short for “robot” – is a software application that conducts automated tasks over the internet. Bots are everywhere: at any time, bots are monitoring how well websites are functioning, looking for data on behalf of digital marketing tools, collecting information for search engine algorithms, and ferrying website traffic to mobile and web applications. Bots are behind social media, and hotel booking sites.

And that’s just the good bots.

Like the humans that make them, bots can be bad. As the Atlantic magazine puts it, bots are “the worker bees of the internet, and also the henchmen.” At any time, bad bots are using false identities to try to get past firewalls and security systems, stealing data, identities and credit card numbers, conducting commercial espionage and deliberately inserting spam – even mounting distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks.

According to internet security company Imperva’s Bot Traffic Report 2016, bots are responsible for 52% of web traffic, ahead of human traffic, on 48%. Of the bot traffic, well over half is ‘bad’ bots (28.9% of all traffic), while ‘good’ bots account for 22.9% of all traffic (up from 18.5% in 2015). Facebook Mobileapp, which fetches website information so it can be viewed in the in-app browser, is the most active good bot, generating 4.2% of total internet traffic, ahead of Googlebot on 3.9%. The 45 most active good bots are responsible for 84.2% of all good bot traffic.

The most active kind of bad bot, says Imperva, is ‘impersonator’ bots, which assume false identities to bypass internet security functions, and are commonly used for DDoS attacks. They represent 24.3% of all web traffic, while ‘hacker tools’ make up 2.6% and ‘scraper’ bots for unauthorised data extraction account for 1.7%.

While bad bots are indeed bad news – and require constant vigilance from internet security applications – good bots are poised to play an increasingly important role in our lives, allowing us to interact with software through speech, text, emojis, images, video or other means, using artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and natural language processing. In the workplace, in online shopping, in investing, in the home, and in healthcare, smarter and faster voice-enabled bots will be helping humans manage their lives.

BT Financial Group’s use of bots

BT Financial Group is exploring the use of bots across the customer journey, exploring the opportunities not just in routine activities but how artificial intelligence can support and add value across the complete experience.

For example, BT’s library of almost 10,000 digital assets in the public domain needs to be regularly updated to meet constant regulatory changes. Rather than tasking risk and compliance teams to manually sift through content, BT is working with Red Marker, an automated compliance tool which screens content for compliance with current regulatory and compliance guidelines by mapping specific words and phrases. Red Marker flags content for further review by the risk and compliance team and also learns from interaction with the team to become more accurate in identifying material and applying formulas and rules.

The tool also has options for further application down the track, such as in the development stage of content, or in monitoring customer calls for signs of frustration or distress and then assisting with mapping conversational flow to better manage this.

Bots in investments

The concept of bots in investing has been in use for some time, though not always identified as such. For example, many fund managers use computer algorithms as part of their investment process to identify stocks which have specific desired characteristics or that are following particular behavioural patterns. Others might use bots to trigger buy or sell actions on particular stocks when they reach a certain value. Given the size of the investment universe, this can save time substantially to reduce human error and, for those using fundamental research, allows more focused attention to researching individual stocks which already sit within the fund manager’s framework.

Investing in bot technology itself is less familiar territory.

Bots is a difficult field to invest in, but the field is part of the stock universe covered by ETF Securities Australia’s ETFS ROBO Global Robotics and Automation ETF (exchange-traded fund), which was launched in September. Australia's first exchange-traded fund (ETF) offering investors access to global robotics, automation and artificial intelligence (AI) innovation, the fund trades on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) under the code ‘ROBO.’

The ROBO ETF tracks 83 stocks from 15 countries (although there are no Australian stocks in the index at present.) ROBO tracks the ROBO Global Robotics and Automation Index: stocks that earn most of their revenue from robotics, automation and AI currently comprise about 40% of the index, with the remaining 60% made up of companies that have a large segment of their business focusing in this area.

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Information current as at 13 November 2017. This document has been created by Westpac Financial Services Limited (ABN 20 000 241 127, AFSL 233716). This This article provides an overview or summary only and it should not be considered a comprehensive statement on any matter or relied upon as such. This information does not take into account your personal objectives, financial situation or needs and so you should consider its appropriateness, having regard to your personal objectives, financial situation and needs having regard to these factors before acting on it. This article may contain material provided by third parties derived from sources believed to be accurate at its issue date. While such material is published with necessary permission, no company in the Westpac Group accepts any responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of, or endorses any such material. Except where contrary to law, we intend by this notice to exclude liability for this material. Westpac Financial Services Limited and some of its related entities may have invested in the past, currently or in the future, in some of the companies referred to in this document. The content of this document is in no way a recommendation to invest in, hold or sell interests in the companies referred to. These projections are predictive in nature. Whilst we have used every effort to ensure that the assumptions on which the projections are based are reasonable, the projections may be affected by inaccurate assumptions or may not take into account known or unknown risks and uncertainties. The actual results actually achieved may differ materially from these projections. ©Westpac Financial Services Ltd 2017