Every now and then sociologist Phil Howard writes messages to social media accounts accusing them of being bots. It’s like a Turing test of the state of online political propaganda. “Once in a while a human will come out and say, ‘I’m not a bot,’ and then we have a conversation,” he said at the European Conference for Science Journalists in Copenhagen on June 29. Continue reading
Incoming messages for straight men on dating sites are… rare. Yet many of the dashing men who tried out Ashley Madison, a site aimed at the already-married, got messages soon after signing up. To see the messages, the men had to pay. The more perceptive among them soon noticed that their pen pals wrote similar come-ons, logged in and out at the same time every day, and oddest of all, had not visited the men’s profiles. Ashley Madison was using more than 70,000 bots to lure in users, Gizmodo found in a 2015 investigation.
The message-sending profiles were one iteration of a growing army of bots that populate our online social networks, affecting everything from our wallets to our politics. Now they are attracting academic study and government research dollars. Continue reading
In mid-October 2016, officials from China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection counted five illegal trash-burning sites and hundreds of thousands of vehicles exceeding emission standards in Beijing alone. For the first time since last winter’s pollution high season, city officials issued a yellow air-quality alert, which required shutting down power plants and reining in Beijing’s frenetic factories and road traffic. If this winter is anything like past winters, the city will have to pull out the yellow card again—and may even have to reach for its red card.
A few years ago almost two thousand bold households on the Danish island of Bornholm joined a surge pricing experiment run by their electricity utility. It was supposed to empower the utility and consumers with a simple, direct market (“The Smartest, Greenest Grid,” IEEE Spectrum, April 2013).
The EU-funded project, called EcoGrid, won widespread buy-in from residents, who could also earn small payoffs when they reduced demand. Yet researchers reported last year that they could reduce demand by only 1.2 percent of peak load, despite early predictions of up to 20-percent reductions for so-called virtual power plants. The market model was missing something. Continue reading