Each day, messages from Nigerian princes, peddlers of wonder drugs and promoters of can’t-miss investments choke email inboxes. Improvements to spam filters only seem to inspire new techniques to break through the protections.
Now, the arms race between spam blockers and spam senders is about to escalate with the emergence of a new weapon: generative artificial intelligence. With recent advances in AI made famous by ChatGPT, spammers could have new tools to evade filters, grab people’s attention and convince them to click, buy or give up personal information.
As director of the Advancing Human and Machine Reasoning lab at the University of South Florida, I research the intersection of artificial intelligence, natural language processing and human reasoning. I have studied how AI can learn the individual preferences, beliefs and personality quirks of people.
This can be used to better understand how to interact with people, help them learn or provide them with helpful suggestions. But this also means you should brace for smarter spam that knows your weak spots – and can use them against you.
Spam, spam, spam
So, what is spam?
Spam is defined as unsolicited commercial emails sent by an unknown entity. The term is sometimes extended to text messages, direct messages on social media and fake reviews on products. Spammers want to nudge you toward action: buying something, clicking on phishing links, installing malware or changing views.
Spam is profitable. One email blast can make US$1,000 in only a few hours, costing spammers only a few dollars – excluding initial setup. An online pharmaceutical spam campaign might generate around $7,000 per day.
Legitimate advertisers also want to nudge you to action – buying their products, taking their surveys, signing up for newsletters – but whereas a marketer email may link to an established company website and contain an unsubscribe option in accordance with federal regulations, a spam email may not.
Spammers also lack access to mailing lists that users signed up for. Instead, spammers utilize counter-intuitive strategies such as the “Nigerian prince” scam, in which a Nigerian prince claims to need your help to unlock an absurd amount of money, promising to reward you nicely. Savvy digital natives immediately dismiss such pleas, but the absurdity of the request may actually select for naïveté or advanced age, filtering for those most likely to fall for the scams.
Advances in AI, however, mean spammers might not have to rely on such hit-or-miss approaches. AI could allow them to target individuals and make their messages more persuasive based on easily accessible information, such as social media posts.
Future of spam
Chances are you’ve heard about the advances in generative large language models like ChatGPT. The task these generative LLMs perform is…