Robotic Telesales

Are commercial companies using robots to sell you products? And how realistic are they?
07 January 2014


Pi - the talking robot from Heriot-Watt University's Robokid Project


Chris - Now, I don't know if you guys saw the news just ahead of Christmas. 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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