Meet the bots documenting our existential dread, one tweet at a time

Robots made out of old car parts
ByJay Castello
Originally Published: 

This article is part of 'An Optimist's Guide to the End of the World,' a collection of stories aimed at disproving the idea that humanity is doomed.

It will be at least 3000 years until radiation returns to safe levels around Chernobyl. In the meantime, you can follow along on Twitter, thanks to the helpful bot @ChernobylStatus.

The bot automatically posts twice a day, sharing the progress of nuclear half-life in and around the former power plant (which is currently being threatened by wildfires). There’s just one problem – it’s very slow progress.

As a point of comparison, 3000 years ago iron was a fancy new technology spreading through Europe and Asia. Or take it from the bot itself: since it first posted in November 2018, the scale has moved from 1.09% to 1.13%. (At the time of writing, but it’s unlikely to have gone much further no matter when you’re reading this.) In any person’s lifetime they might expect it to get 3% further, if they’re lucky.

It may be the dumbest thing I’ve ever created - Brian Moore

But, of course, this is really the point, demonstrating just how long-lived the impact of the nuclear disaster will be. Chernobyl Status emphasizes this in its design, too. For example, I rounded those numbers to a couple of decimal places: the bot uses 10. Above the number is a long bar, comically underfilled.

“It may be the dumbest thing I’ve ever created,” says the bot’s owner, Brian Moore. He’s worked on a huge variety of projects based on world events before and since Chernobyl Status, the latest being a machine learning program that uses your webcam to alert you when you touch your face, created in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak. Several of them are other Twitter bots, including one that applies the golden ratio over an assortment of pictures and another that splices the “record scratch” trope to randomly selected YouTube videos.

Moore created Chernobyl Status on a whim after reading an article on just how long it would take radiation levels to come down. “It was the simplest way to get [the timescale] across,” he says. As evidenced by his previous work, the bot-making community covers all kinds of subjects, from whimsical to weighty.

Those focusing on human impact on the planet are only a small segment, but cover a variety of subjects from different angles. Some are artistic projects, like the ASCII art demonstrations of cities being submerged by predicted rising sea levels that packed 100 years of change into 100 tweets between 2014 and 2018. Others are created by climate scientists themselves, like Aslak Grinsted’s Daily Glacier Bot, which showcases the rate of melting by comparing two side-to-side aerial photographs of the same spot. Some simply present data drawn from publicly available websites. @NuclearTrains, for example, will let you know where the UK’s nuclear waste is traveling at any given moment. Hourly Energy Bot randomly selects an area of the US power grid and demonstrates its energy sources, be they coal or hydroelectric power. Whether created by hobbyists or professionals they tend to slot right in among the rest of followers’ timelines, making use of Twitter’s short snippets of info and decorating themselves with emoji.

Another is Hurricane Bot, created by Kevin Pluck. Pluck, along with artist Marlo Garnsworthy, is part of Pixel Movers and Makers. The pair aim to better communicate the notoriously difficult-to-explain science of how the climate is changing. For example, it’s difficult to picture the Antarctic’s loss of 3 trillion tons of ice until you see it laid over New York City.

They offer up work for all kinds of purposes, including professional websites and articles, but can also be contracted to make other bots. Pluck says that Twitter is a great platform for getting this kind of visualisation across “because of its open nature.”

Hurricane Bot plots both observations and predictions about major storms. (It shouldn’t, the page emphasises, be used for emergency planning.) Pluck says he was inspired by seeing similar animations. “I wanted to see more and spent some time hunting down the data sources and thought I'd see if I could do something similar. After finding out how often the data updated, I knew I had to make a bot out of it. So, after a few evenings of head scratching, The Hurricane Bot posted its first tweet last September and has posted nearly 800 hurricane reports since then.”

Like Moore, he originally made the bot on a whim, for his own entertainment. “I made it for me, and I would have been happy just to see the output myself,” he says, “but because Twitter is such an open environment, it’s very easy to share my personal interest with the world.”

This is a typical attitude among those who create Twitter bots, no matter the purpose. An investigation by curation site BotWiki found that most aren’t really looking for a massive followership for their bots. So a project like Hurricane Bot gathering a few hundred followers is perfectly aligned with its ambition — to simply find a few others like Pluck who are curious to see the data. The open atmosphere of Twitter means that people who are interested are quite happy to see a gif of a hurricane spinning across the ocean sandwiched between breaking news and food pics.

But Chernobyl Bot has attracted much more attention – more than any of the other bots Moore has created. “I wouldn’t think that anybody would want constant updates,” he says. “Turns out [more than] 40,000 people do.”

He says that he doesn’t quite know why it’s so popular. “I definitely saw a spike when the HBO show Chernobyl came out, but besides that, it’s grown for an unknown reason,” he says. “Perhaps people are obsessed with the potential of nuclear holocaust?”

Chernobyl does have a certain draw thanks to its fame, but there’s another key difference between Moore’s bot and those focused on climate change: Moore’s shows forward progress, no matter how slow. Twitter is always a real-time manifestation cramming as much of the present moment onto one screen as possible. For tens of thousands of people, that includes the fact that Chernobyl is now 0.0001% closer to being fit for human habitation again. And they seem to be cheerful about it – to Moore’s surprise, when the meter ticked over to 1.1%, dozens of people celebrated in the replies. It’s now Chernobyl Status’s pinned Tweet, capturing where we’re at as the percentage builds toward two, even if we can’t even begin to imagine where we’ll be when it approaches 100.