If you try to buy items with limited stock online, you might find it impossible. That’s because automated programmes or ‘web robots’ — known simply as ‘bots’ — will checkout before you can even put something in your shopping basket. People who use bots might then sell their ill-gotten gains at vastly-inflated prices.
Bots have been around for years. They’re most famously associated with limited-edition sneakers (trainers) but their use has spread to other highly sought-after items, most recently computer graphics cards. Businesses usually try to block bots because it stops human customers buying their products, but it’s been notoriously difficult to accomplish. Why is it so hard to beat the bots?
The battle between bots and businesses can be explained using a central concept in biology: the Red Queen hypothesis. The idea can describe many conflicts that drive an evolutionary arms race between two species, such as between parasites and hosts, or between predators and prey.
What would later become known as ‘the Red Queen hypothesis’ was first proposed in 1973 by Leigh Van Valen, who was so confident in his “new evolutionary law” that he launched his own scientific journal to publish the original paper.
Van Valen’s hypothesis was based on his observation that species seemed to go extinct in the fossil record at a roughly constant rate. According to his ‘law of constant extinction’, that process is driven by conflicts between species, which in turn drives evolution by natural selection, producing adaptations like better eyesight spot prey versus better camouflage to hide from predators.
The Red Queen is a reference to the character from *Through the Looking Glass*, the sequel to *Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland*. In the book, Alice chases and catches-up to the Red Queen, but discovers that neither has moved. As the Queen then explains, in her kingdom “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” The hypothesis is therefore a metaphor for the way that two species must continuously evolve to keep-up with each others’ adaptations.
Conflict creates enemies. Species fight over an ecosystem’s limited resources, such as food, which ultimately supplies the energy that’s needed to survive and reproduce (to be evolutionarily successful at the expense of others). That leads to antagonistic interactions between an ‘exploiter’ that steals resources from a ‘victim’.
The predator-prey relationship is one example of exploiter-victim in nature. For online shopping, you have a bots-business relationship with a technological arms race where the adaptations are the technology that businesses use to block bots, while bot developers program new ways to break through software barriers. Just as in the natural world, that conflict drives coevolution.
But when it comes to bots and businesses, there’s one aspect that’s unlike a Red Queen battle. Leigh Van Valen called his ‘law of constant extinction’ a zero-sum game: there are no winners, only losers that go extinct. By contrast, a business will still make money regardless of who buys the products. And so while bots and businesses win, consumers lose.