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Indefatigable WikiBots keep Wikipedia battles going long after humans give up and go home

And you thought arguing with a living Wiki-editor was bad

Get some bots into a Wikipedia edit-war and they'll keep you entertained for years, it seems – and Portuguese bots are the most tenacious.

A group of researchers from Oxford University and the Alan Turing Institute in London say once Wikipedia bots get into a disagreement, they spend years reverting each others' edits.

Humans – excluding vandals, since the researchers did – eventually give up or come to a compromise, often fairly quickly, but not bots.

“Our analysis shows that a system of simple bots may produce complex dynamics and unintended consequences. In the case of Wikipedia, we see that benevolent bots that are designed to collaborate may end up in continuous disagreement. This is both inefficient as a waste of resources, and inefficacious, for it may lead to local impasse”, they write in this paper.

Wikipedia provided a handy example of bot-on-bot interaction, because unlike (say) Twitter spambots, Wikipedia bots are easy to identify because the bot-herder needs to get approval to run them.

Bots do mundane and repetitive tasks like identifying vandals, enforcing bans, spell-checks, check copyright – and some edits. Editing bots are particularly useful for adding links and translating articles (and, in fact, bots frequently get into rows about translation, getting into long revert-wars over the choice of words).

Revert wars – or in the academese of the paper, “reverts that occur systematically” – are easy to measure because they're identifiable regardless of language.

Over the Wikipedia's first ten years: “bots on English Wikipedia reverted another bot on average 105 times, which is significantly larger than the average of three times for humans. However, bots on German Wikipedia revert each other to a much lesser extent than other bots (24 times on average). Bots on Portuguese Wikipedia, in contrast, fight the most, with an average of 185 bot-bot reverts per bot”.

Human revert-wars are short, intense, and – because any one person can only monitor so many articles at a time – can result in reversions happening within minutes.

Because bots run on a schedule, and their edits are rate-limited, it takes an average one month for one bot to notice another's edit – but “these sterile 'fights' may sometimes continue for years”.

It might sound like sterile research, but there's a serious point: bot battles are wasteful, and as artificial intelligence proliferates, the researchers hope designers can avoid them.

The paper, by Milena Tsvetkova, Ruth García-Gavilanes, Luciano Floridiand Taha Yasseri, is here. ®

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