March of the Silent Bots (MITB Thought Leadership Series)

This article is part of the MITB Thought Leadership Series published by the SMU School of Information Systems’ Master of IT in Business programme. 

By  Associate Professor Paul Griffin, SMU School of Information Systems

Self-intelligent software robots or ‘bots’ are everywhere. These small pieces of code run automated tasks when you order a taxi, search for a restaurant or check the weather. Quietly beavering away, it is unknown how many bots exist, but undoubtedly this number is set to surge over time. Already, bots comprise roughly half of all internet traffic.

Bots have been around for 50 years but they have only recently become more noticeable especially when tied to improved voice recognition devices such as Siri or Alexa. Of late these bots have gained a voice of their own and below are the key types of bots to take note of:

  • Pull bots are the most prevalent type, used for information retrieval. Without bots like these, search engines like Google could not exist.
  • Push bots, conversely, are used to distribute content. These are used to automatically post links on forums or increase views on counts to extract more money from advertisers.
  • Processing bots retrieve information and perform a function, for example, automated trading or personal wealth management.
  • Chatbots are the ones to watch for the future. These can be coupled with voice recognition systems and may well be the interface of the future when talking to machines is the norm. One important recent development is chatbots used for financial advisory. These robo-advisors dispense sophisticated financial advice or portfolio management usually only available to high net-worth individuals. New robo-advisor start-ups in Singapore such as Smartly and StashAway, and banks including OCBC and BNP Paribas are all getting in on the action. (Read also, Should a Robot Run Your Investment Portfolio?)
  • Malicious bots are downright bad to the bone. Spam bots harvest email addresses from contact pages, website scrapers, copy websites and reuse them without permission. Viruses, worms, distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks botnets, zombie computers, are all forms of malicious bots.

Another way of categorising bots is into white, black and grey. White ones are designed to help, black bots are for illicit purposes and grey bots aren’t illegal but can be annoying through pop-ups or those that capture data surreptitiously.

As bots become more prevalent, will they replace humans? Yes, especially for high volume or repetitive tasks, or ones that need a fast response. And fortunately, or not, all sectors are up for grabs from law to education.

Yet bots are not people, and tasks that require empathy, creativity and understanding will always be needed. The hypothesis of the “uncanny valley” whereby human replicas, which appear almost, but not entirely, like human beings elicit feelings of revulsion among observers, demonstrates that people still like the human touch.

Bots and humans have to work together to add value and the adoption of bots in different industries is mixed, for sure.

For companies, it boils down to whether you trust bots to do the job, because when something goes wrong a lot of damage can be done in a short time. I expect to see more standards and controls around all types of bots in the future.


As bots become more prevalent, will they replace humans? Yes, especially for high volume or repetitive tasks or ones that need a fast response.


Paul Robert Griffin is currently Associate Professor of Information Systems (Practice) and Director of the Master of IT in Business (Financial Technology & Analytics) Programme at Singapore Management University. View Assoc Prof Griffin’s faculty profile here