What are bots for computers and smartphones and how do they work

Always more widespread and increasingly "intelligent", bots are becoming a fixed presence in our online lives. However, we must be careful not to do with

In computer science, bots (short for robots) are software that, by accessing the Net using the same channels used by real users, are able to carry out various tasks completely autonomously. All thanks, as we'll see in a moment, to artificial intelligence and machine learning.

This ability has meant that, especially in the last 3 years, bots have multiplied and so have their functions and applications. A trend that ended up creating confusion among users, even the most experienced ones. Because, as already mentioned, the world of bots is quite wide: there are botnets bots, used for DDoS and spam attacks; there are chatbots bots, used by instant messaging services to automate a certain type of communication (news dissemination, for example, or customer support); then there are "social" bots, i.e. fake profiles used on various social networks to make volume online.

How bots work

When we talk about bots, today we refer to real artificial intelligence algorithms able to analyze and understand - more or less exactly - the language of real users who interact with them. Capabilities that improve incrementally thanks to machine learning: bots are able to learn from their mistakes and, above all, from their interaction with real people. This allows them to improve their ability to analyze human language and thus provide increasingly timely and accurate answers.

Technical bots

These are, at the moment, the most common type of bot and the least known to users. Also because, all things considered, they act a bit "in the shadows". Within this category, just to make an example, there are web crawlers or web spiders, the software used by search engines to analyze the Net, save websites and create indexes that allow then to return SERPs appropriate to our search intentions. The world of technical bots, however, is much broader than you can imagine: they include the so-called wiki bots, software that has the task of automating the management of wiki projects (such as Wikipedia, for example) by checking if the links (internal and external) are correct and working, automatically updating content or even creating new pages and new entries in the free encyclopedia. In this case, the most famous (and active) bot is the Swedish lsjbot: created by Sverker Johansson, professor of cognitive and evolutionary linguistics at Dalarna University in Sweden, it is the author of 8 million pages on Wikipedia (divided between Swedish and Cebuano editions).


In the beginning there was Telegram, an instant messaging application born in Russia. From there, the chatbot "fashion" exploded quickly, until it landed on more popular applications, such as Facebook Messenger for example. But, exactly, what are chatbots? They are software that, by exploiting artificial intelligence and machine learning, are able to simulate the ability to respond to a person in the flesh and, therefore, simulate a conversation with a user who were to ask them. Initially very basic - chatbot responses were predefined and standardized - today their language analysis capabilities and their ability to formulate increasingly complex responses are growing very fast. This has allowed developers, software houses and service providers to create "chat" robots capable of carrying out the most varied tasks: there are bots linked to international newspapers - such as CNN's, for example - that update users on the latest news from around the world; "weather" bots that provide up-to-date forecasts at the user's request; and "waiter" chatbots that allow users to order takeaway food from a distance. The big trend in the world of chatbots, however, is that of customer assistance: more and more service providers are replacing assistance centers with chatbots ready to provide answers and solutions without waiting times.

Social bots

Bots have now become a fixed presence even within social networks in the form of fake profiles. It doesn't take much, in fact, to create applications capable of creating dozens and dozens of accounts that can then be used for various purposes. There are those who use them, for example, to inflate the number of followers on Twitter and Instagram and make believe, in this way, to be more famous than they really are. The "social" bots, however, are acquiring an increasingly political dimension: as seen by the research group behind the Political Bots project, in fact, more and more accounts linked to public figures are resorting to bots in order to have a real "sounding board" always ready to relaunch their messages without questioning them too much. In order to curb this danger, Twitter has launched several campaigns aimed at uncovering fake profiles: the goal is to prevent these bots from being used to spread fake news and thus feed a dangerous vicious circle.


As in a sort of military escalation, in recent years we have witnessed an unparalleled growth of so-called zombie computers that, once infected, go to fatten the ranks of botnets. Bots, in this case, are computer devices infected by a particular type of malware that allows a hacker to control them at will even if they are hundreds or thousands of kilometers away. The devices - computers, smartphones, smartwatches or connected gadgets of the Internet of Things - become a kind of puppet (or robot, in fact) under the complete control of the hacker on duty. The massive diffusion of connected gadgets that has been witnessed in recent times has further increased the possibilities of those who want to build a botnet, providing tens of thousands of easily hackable devices (see the case of the attack on DynDNS). Today, botnets can consist of as few as a few hundred thousand zombie computers and have, not surprisingly, become the primary cybersecurity threat: botnets such as Mirai and Ramnit were used at the turn of 2016 and 2017 to knock out global web service providers and banking institutions large and very large.