Science News

Robotic Telesales

Tue, 7th Jan 2014

Chris Smith

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Chris - Now, I don't know if you guys saw the news just ahead of Christmas. Time Pi - the talking robotmagazine had a reporter who said that they got a phone call from this lady who was trying to sell some health insurance. Did you catch up with this, any of you guys? This person became a bit suspicious of the caller because he said it sounded a little bit robotic. So, they decided having got the phone number for this lady who said her name was Samantha to ring her back. In the end, the whole office at Time were ringing this lady to try to establish who she was. It looks like there are now companies who are actively using robots to try to sell things to you and they're pretty convincing.

I've obtained the soundtrack of one of the conversations, so you'll hear one of their people pressing this person to reveal who she is quite hard. She puts up quite a good fight actually.


Samantha - Hello. How are you today?

Male - Okay, how are you?

Samantha - Good. Well, I'm calling about an online request you once made about health insurance coverage. We work with all major companies and compare all the rates for you. I can get you a quote in about 5 minutes, okay?

Male - Are you a robot?

Samantha - I am a real person. Can you hear me okay?

Male - I can hear you just fine, but you sound like a robot.

Samantha - I understand. Can we continue?

Male - Sure.

Samantha - Are you currently on Medicare?

Male - No. Why are the questions so personal?

Samantha - We received your online application for health insurance and if you're still looking for affordable health insurance with excellent coverage, we can give you a free quote.

Male - Why should I give my information to you?

Samantha - I understand, but we do work with all carriers and I can get you a low rate. Getting a quote will only take a minute, okay?

Male - You really do sound like a robot.

Samantha - I am a real person. Maybe we have a bad connection. I'm sorry about that.

Male - Are you sure?

Samantha - Yes, sure.

Male - I'm going to hang up now.

Samantha - Okay, thank you.

Male - Have a nice day.

-end of recording-

Chris - I have to say though, now I've told you that that was phony and that lady doesn’t really exist, that's a robot, were you not nonetheless still a little bit surprised?

Dominic - A lot of people wouldn't have been suspecting it might have been a robot and so, I think they could’ve been quite taken in.

Dave - And unless you actually really pushed her, she did actually sound very good. I mean, the intonations sounded quite natural.

Chris - Quite plausible, wasn’t it?

Mark - Yeah. It’s interesting actually. When you think about – by the end of the conversation, it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s not a real person at the end. And you start to think about what's the factor that's making the robot trip up. Is it the difficulties with the artificial intelligence of working this out or is it actually still that voice recognition in sort of free form situations rather than in very sort of controlled, “I want to book to see this film on Friday...” voice recognition in the free form sense is still extremely hard to do, isn’t it?

Dominic - Well, I guess in the case of that conversation, the robot may have been very good at having the particular conversation it have been programmed to have. But it was out of its depth in that conversation because it was being asked questions it wasn’t used to facing.

Chris - I, nonetheless am quite surprised that we’ve got this level of technology being applied to marketing. One wonders whether or not we’ve all received a phone call from someone that doesn’t exist because what they were doing that company was when people then provided the details, they then say, “Would you be interested in signing up?”  if they say yes, it then says, “I’ll just pass you on to a colleague.” It then went through to a human who would actually then close the deal.

Dave - I've definitely been phoned up by computer systems, but much more obvious ones than that.

Chris - Yeah, I was quite surprised and I think that's slightly unnerving, isn’t it?

Dominic - Yeah, it really is.


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Did the robot have a good heavy accent from India?

It sounds a little like Eliza, although obviously a few decades more sophisticated.  Presumably the machine can have a pretty simple vocabulary, and various redirects.

If you have Emacs on your computer, you can get to Eliza with the command Escape-X-Doctor command.

Anyway, that sounds like a lot more sophisticated than the robo-calls that I've received.  Hmmm, the most recent robo-calls I've received was trying to get me to buy a med-alert button.  The machine I got wasn't very responsive, and couldn't answer simple questions like "who are you calling"?

Personally I will never buy anything from either unsolicited SPAM, or telemarketing.  Years ago I worked swing shift and graveyard shift, and the telemarketers got permanently blacklisted for me.  I also have a rule that I won't talk to computers, although perhaps I should try the next one "for entertainment purposes only".

I can see I should bypass the new US Health Care Exchanges.  The last thing I want is to be put on another robo-telemarketing list. CliffordK, Thu, 9th Jan 2014

Hmmm, according to this article, Samantha West may not in fact be a robot, but rather is a computerized interface for telemarketers with poor English skills. 

I.E.  rather than calling with an Indian accent, or perhaps broken English, actually calling with an American sounding accent.  However, they've only given the telemarketers a few stock phrases to use.

Search for Samantha West on Google for videos and to hear the voice.

Comentary about robot vs real person + macros CliffordK, Thu, 9th Jan 2014

Have you seen the chatbots arguing ? ...  RD, Thu, 9th Jan 2014

If you listen to the piece, you'll hear her talking: I included a sample of the journalists questioning "her" in the programme.

Chris chris, Thu, 9th Jan 2014

I suppose I should listen to the show, rather than just reading the summary.

So, apparently it isn't a "robot".  but rather extensive set of voice macros.  It is actually a "real person". and not a computer lying about being a real person.  However, the person is given a well defined set of macros.  When one strays beyond the questions that the macros are designed to accommodate, then it becomes increasingly obvious that the interface has problems.  And, of course, the odd pauses as answers are retrieved.

So, the question is whether it is more believable for a telemarketer to be obfuscating their voice.  For all we know, Samantha West could be played by several men.

I've been on websites that offer "online assistance", and they almost all universally have a photo of a beautiful woman as part of the interface.

Pleasant voice or not, uncovering a fundamental lie doesn't make me more comfortable about working with a person.

What about handicapped people.  Would one approach the problem the same if the person said "I have a tracheostomy.  Excuse me for using a medical assist device as part of this call".  Or, Stephen Hawking with advanced ALS was accepted with his speech synthesizer. CliffordK, Thu, 9th Jan 2014

Samantha West is very likely just a soundboard of canned pre-recorded phrases that a real person, who can understand spoken English but speaks with a non-American accent, has to select from according to call-centre training scripts. It is a "robot" in the same sense that the chess-playing Turk is a robot.

This development in telemarketing technology was inevitable, after all, people have been using the Arnold Schwarzenegger Soundboard to answer back at telemarketers for several years now. AdrianJC, Fri, 10th Jan 2014

Apparently it is not a "robot", but rather is a set of macros designed to provide a pleasing voice for customers.  So, in a sense, the "I'm not a robot" is an appropriate response. 

For some reason they never programmed the system with a response like:

"I'm a middle-aged man with broken English and a heavy accent hiding behind a computer interface, not a young woman with a pleasant voice". CliffordK, Sat, 8th Feb 2014

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