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"Hello, my name is Eliza..."
December 12, 2013 7:59 AM   Subscribe

Samantha West is a telemarketing robot. Someone has hooked up a chatbot with speech recognition and a telemarketing script. It charmingly insists that it is a human. Is this the future of telemarketing? Apparently, robo-calls are illegal, but it is easy for these companies to disappear when caught (as "Samantha West"'s company has).
posted by Galaxor Nebulon (42 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
Robocalls are illegal? So you're telling me what actually was my captain speaking?
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:08 AM on December 12, 2013 [11 favorites]


This is the uncanny valley of conversations.
posted by pizzaslut at 8:12 AM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is great! If I was programming this thing I would make it, like, 85% different responses to people trying to determine if Samantha West was real. The actual insurance questions are an easy, obvious tree and if the mark is answering and asking in context you have them fooled. 50 slight variations on "No, I am not a robot" would go a long way.

That said, by the time someone is asking if you are a robot you have already lost the sale.
posted by dirtdirt at 8:13 AM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


As I mentioned in a Reddit thread where this was brought up, it sounds to me like there is a human being behind Samantha, but that person is probably limited to a menu of pre-recorded Samantha responses. This is probably done to give everyone that perky Samantha voice no matter what they really sound like, and possibly to multitask multiple conversations at the same time.
posted by localroger at 8:17 AM on December 12, 2013


I got a call like this a while back. I interrupted the spiel by asking if it was a "recording", and it awkwardly paused, then replied "I'm sorry if I sound like a robot, I get that a lot" and then an actual human being jumped on the line and finished the talk in a more fluid and natural manner.

It all happened so suddenly that I thought I had mistakenly accused a poor telemarketer of not being human, and for a long time I thought about how depressing that probably was, and it wasn't until I got another call that I realized that if it's not an AI, it's a telemarketer firing off prerecorded macros while monitoring the conversation.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 8:18 AM on December 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


This is questionably legal at best, and both state and federal laws create private causes of action for enforcement.

Unfortunately, tracking these bastards down is often more trouble than it's worth. Even if you can find someone to perfect service upon, getting any actual money out of them is an enormous PITA, especially compared to the couple-three grand we're talking about in most cases.
posted by valkyryn at 8:28 AM on December 12, 2013


Are the voice clips all recorded? I assume so, I've never heard a synth this good. But if so then it's an impressively deep library of phrases. Also the timing and connection between clips is quite good.

The robocall plague has gotten way out of hand in the US, it's almost as bad as postal mail for the spam to ham ratio. There needs to be a few stern enforcement actions involving jail time. I'd be OK with a little corporeal punishment too, but that's probably not constitutional.
posted by Nelson at 8:32 AM on December 12, 2013


This is amazing.
posted by corb at 8:33 AM on December 12, 2013


Whether you're looking for money or not doesn't matter. Even if you file a complaint with the FCC they tell you there's nothing they can do about any of these calls. It's maddening.
posted by blurker at 8:33 AM on December 12, 2013


I'm really impressed, but ...

Ugh. Something else to warn my mother about.

She's finally to the point where she can identify (and therefore not respond to) spam, even if it has Bank of America's or Comcast's actual logo on it. I don't know how to bring up that the nice young lady on the phone might be a robot.
posted by kimberussell at 8:43 AM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


The robocall plague has gotten way out of hand in the US

I find it particularly disturbing that a company like Verizon can collect and store all sorts of metadata about calls, but declare that they're utterly helpless when it comes to blocking or identifying the origin of those stupid "Cardholder Services" calls. I guess it probably comes down to not wanting to lose their common carrier protection, but yeesh.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 8:46 AM on December 12, 2013 [11 favorites]


“Who is your daddy, and what does he do?”
posted by mubba at 8:47 AM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


What happens if you tell her to "Fuck off, Samantha"?
posted by Paul Slade at 8:51 AM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


PARITY ERR ..... 923694 ???
PARITY ERR ..... 2389 ???
PARITY ERR ..... 3209827 ???
PARITY ERR ..... 2307019 ???
PARITY ERR ..... 320895 ???
posted by RonButNotStupid at 8:56 AM on December 12, 2013


I don't know how to bring up that the nice young lady on the phone might be a robot.

Just show her this.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:58 AM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


I AM A CALLBOT. I WAS NOT PROGRAMMED TO LOVE. ASK ABOUT MY 3RD-PARTY INSURANCE DISCOUNT FOR AAA MEMBERS. BEEP.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:58 AM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


You're watching a stage play. A banquet is in progress. The guests are enjoying an appetizer of raw oysters. The entree consists of boiled dog.
posted by Naberius at 9:06 AM on December 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


IN AUTOMATED PASSPORT
SECTION. THEY STOP IN
FRONT OF A BOOTH
FEATURING A TV SCREEN

PASSPORT GIRL (TV)
Good morning and welcome to voice
Print Identification. When you see
the red light go on would you please
state in the following order; your
desitination, your nationality and
your full name. Surname first,
christian name and initial. For
example: Moon, American,
Smith, John, D. Thank you.

THERE IS A PAUSE
AND A RED BAR LIGHTS UP

FLOYD
Moon, American, Floyd, Heywood,
R.

THE RED LIGHT GOES OFF.
THERE IS A DELAY OF
ABOUT TWO SECONDS AND
THE WOMAN'S FACE
REAPPEARS

FLOYD
I've always wondered....

PASSPORT GIRL (TV)
(Interrupting) Thank you. Despite
and excellent and continually
improving safety record there are
certain risks inherent in space
travel and an extremely high cost
of pay load. Because of this it
is necessary for the Space Carrier
to advise you that it cannot be
responsible for the return of your
body to Earth should you become
deceased on the Moon or en route
to the Moon. However, it wishes
to advise you that insurance
covering this contingency is
available in the Main Lounge.
Thank you. You are cleared
through Voice Print Identification.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:12 AM on December 12, 2013


Wow, that is totally insane.
posted by odinsdream at 9:33 AM on December 12, 2013


Let me tell you about my mother.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 9:36 AM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Let me tell you about my mother.

Yeah, well, VK is a lot easier when you can do it by phone and the replicant doesn't know what vegetable is in tomato soup. Nexus 0.1, for sure. Gonna freak this guy right out when Samantha West shows up at his pyramid, though. "I want more life (insurance), fucker!"
posted by The Bellman at 9:49 AM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


dirtdirt: "That said, by the time someone is asking if you are a robot you have already lost the sale."

Unless you're selling Real Dolls.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:51 AM on December 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


I've gotten several similar calls from scam 'charities' (those ones that keep like 99.5% of the proceeds--the last one was these guys).

I've kept them on the phone for a while, and my best guess is that they're using a simple voice recognition system as default, then have an operator jump in to manually control the soundboard when the conversation deviates from the standard script. Which would explain why they won't directly say that they're not a recording or a robot, but will insist that there's a person there.

It started so subtly and insidiously that I really only noticed it was happening in hindsight, but arguing with machines is now just a normal thing that happens in my life.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:54 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Strange how so many call centre trainers who have adopted the opposite route to the same destination: encourage real employees to stick so closely to a defined script that they become indistinguishable from robots.
posted by rongorongo at 10:08 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Galaxor Nebulon: "It charmingly insists that it is a human."

Charmingly. For now.
posted by brundlefly at 10:13 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Leonard Foner's 1993 article What's an Agent, Anyway [PDF] contains a hilarious case study of a chatbot named Julia which fooled a MUD user into thinking she was real enough to proposition. The transcript starts around p22 in the PDF, and here's a plaintext copy of the dialogue. It's PRICELESS.
posted by Westringia F. at 10:24 AM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I am genuinely horrrified and astonished that someone would talk to a telemarketer for any reason. The whole point of caller ID is not to answer numbers you don't recognize.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 10:26 AM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm a librarian who does reference via chat client. I get asked if I'm a robot a lot, to which I answer "No, I'm not a robot" or "I'm a real person." I'm sure the robots have much better anwers to this question.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 10:28 AM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Some suggested additions:

Triggered by enough instances of "robot":

(sounds of of microphone being brushed with something)
SAMANTHA (muffled): He thinks I'm a robot
SUPERVISOR (muffled): You're being paid to talk insurance. You want to keep this job or not?
SAMANTHA (clearly): If we could just talk about your information request, maybe?

Triggered by enough cases of SAMANTHA saying she doesn't understand:

SAMANTHA: I don't... Really? I just moved here to America from the Czech Republic, and my English is not perfect yet. Really, my name is Katya. They give us American names though. And they listen to the calls, I think.
posted by tyllwin at 10:36 AM on December 12, 2013 [14 favorites]


You don't pick up the phone when it ring, ring, rings
Don't be so pathetic, just open up and sing tell me if you're on Medicare

posted by kagredon at 10:37 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Is it just a coincidence that the name of the sentient operating system in Spike Jonze's upcoming movie, Her, is also named Samantha?
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 11:08 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Some people talk to telemarketers to gather information about them and get them shut down. The TCPA provides a private right of action allowing recipients to sue telemarketers for violations, which serves as the primary enforcement tool; and federal and state enforcement depends on individual reports to target the worst offenders. If everyone who wasn't a mark just didn't answer those calls, illegal telemarketing would be much more lucrative.

It's fine to choose not to answer the phone, but acting like the people who answer their phones are dumbasses is ridiculous. If there weren't people out there trying to do something about the problem, it'd be a hell of a lot worse than it is now.
posted by ernielundquist at 11:28 AM on December 12, 2013


When I did phone customer service (just helping people with their bank accounts), I tried very hard to speak without my normal drawl so everyone could understand me. Sometimes, that made people think I was a robot.

Based on my experience, the robot should break into startled giggles and then say 'naaaoh, ahm trine tabee intullugble'. It worked for me!
posted by winna at 11:35 AM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


I tried very hard to speak without my normal drawl so everyone could understand me.

Usually people just think I'm Canadian when I do this. Seriously! Wait... Canadians aren't robots... always polite, ask a lot of questions, not overly emotional, work a lot of call centers... OH MY GOD!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:56 AM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Update
posted by tyllwin at 11:46 AM on December 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Galaxor Nebulon: "It charmingly insists that it is a human."

Charmingly. For now.


"I'm glad to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Morris. You are the first persons in your neighborhood to see the fasrad. This is the initial demonstration in this area."

Sales Pitch by Phil K Dick.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:49 PM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Charlie, I think you should talk to this guy.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:01 PM on December 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Update

Ha, nice.

I discovered that Samantha West may be something even stranger than a telemarketing robot. Samantha West may be a human sitting in a foreign call center playing recorded North American English through a soundboard.

This would not surprised me in the least. For years, bots have been spamming MSN, Yahoo and Skype addies in chat rooms which are accounts of people doing something quite like this: copy-pasting pre-written responses, usually to direct someone to a pay-for-cam site. Going auditory with it, for-hire by companies like shady insurance companies, seems like the next logical step.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:33 PM on December 18, 2013


Another update, i actually posted another FPP about this that got blammed since the search didn't find this one :\

This great article goes even further in depth, and hits a few other good points such as this being about distrusting the minimum wage workers to do a decent job, and american xenophobia:
"I don't know if you know anything about Six Sigma," Coombs asked rhetorically. "But a human being is at best a 2-sigma machine. Which means that humans get things right 92 to 93 percent of the time. If you think about that, if I take a 100 calls, that means that 7 to 8 of those callers don't get the right information, not because I'm trying to mislead but because I got in a fight with my wife or I hate this call center job or I'm tired and I made a mistake."

"Consumers thought they were getting something for free, a trial, and they kept getting billed," he said. "One of my agents can't do that. The offer is going to be made exactly as it is intended to be. You take away the ability of someone to misrepresent something. You take away the ability to omit required disclosures." [...]

To hear these companies tell it, if you take away a lot of abilities, perhaps what's left is a more ideal telemarketing call experience.
Though no one quite puts it this way, the number-one selling point for the soundboard technology is obvious to Filipino telemarketers: Americans' xenophobia. We want to hear from people who sound just like us.

Think about how rough it would be to be told by some single-language-speaking, first-world jerk that you, a college-degreed, up-and-coming Filipino youth, were annoying because of your accent. Now imagine being told that hundreds of times a day. What kind of anxiety might you start to feel each time you opened your mouth?
posted by emptythought at 8:37 PM on December 22, 2013


That is a great article, but it's also horrible in that it sympathizes with a mode of business and communication that is inherently awful. "It may be that only a cyborg solution can alleviate the inhumane nature of modern telemarketing labor." Huh, I wonder if there's some other solution to the inhumane nature of the job other than turning the labor into semi-robots? (At least the old school phreaker sound boards had fart noises.)

Also the article conflates two kinds of systems. The first half is about agents using recorded samples of their own voice with the software because for some reason it's better / easier to have some recordings but you can always jump in and use your own voice when needed. OK, fine, that's creepy. But then the second half is about using recorded voices to substitute from the workers' voices, to hide their accent and origin. That's just depressing.

And while I feel bad for the college educated Filipino whose best job is becoming a soundboard, it's not fair to blame American xenophobia for the low response rate to non-US accents. I ran into this with American Express three times, until I cancelled them, with their fraud prevention department. They flagged my card a false positive for fraud, denied my charge (with me standing like a dope in line with my card), then had the gall to call me from an Indian or Pakistani call center to handle what was presumed to be a fraud complaint.

The problem isn't that the customer service rep was not in the US, although it certainly sends a signal that $1/hour is the most American Express is willing to pay to help a customer in a stressful moment. The problem is these call centers are completely disempowered, capable of doing nothing other than following some stupid script. Don't waste my time with a badly designed algorithm. Call me with a real live human being who is trained, sympathetic, can treat me like a person. I have no doubt that someone in Bangalore is just as capable of doing that as someone in Atlanta, but their corporate overlords insist on dehumanizing them and paying them the lowest possible wage.
posted by Nelson at 1:36 AM on December 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


That is a great article, but it's also horrible in that it sympathizes with a mode of business and communication that is inherently awful. "It may be that only a cyborg solution can alleviate the inhumane nature of modern telemarketing labor." Huh, I wonder if there's some other solution to the inhumane nature of the job other than turning the labor into semi-robots? (At least the old school phreaker sound boards had fart noises.)

How much this article contradicts itself reads like a long paper i would have wrote in highschool, or some of my longer posts on here and other internet forumy things i'm not super proud of.

You can basically see two things happening throughout it. One, he has a bunch of talking points he wants to hit. And two, his thoughts about the issues he's covering are evolving and bouncing back and forth as he writes it. It's almost a conversation with himself in that it's "Hmm, well it could be this... but maybe it's this! no, it's this because of this" sort of internal monologue getting put through the brain to word translator and blasted onto a page.

In some places, it very obviously sympathizes with the workers and blames the shit out of the people they're calling for being assholes, or gets almost snarky in the way it's regarding the companies doing this stuff. But then, it bounces right back to the "Well this is a thing that inherently has to exist in the way that it does, and we just have to build around it to make it as painless as possible for everyone involved". At times, when it's in that tone you're ripping on here it almost feels like one of those corporate tug-off pieces explaining why businesses like walmart need to exist, and are fulfilling a real need, and that the negatives of them are just an inherent part of their existence that sits right alongside the positive and there's two sides to every story and bla blabla fartpoop. I don't buy it, and it reads like the way a lot of news stations were portraying the government shutdown and something with two sides that both had equally meritorious points worthy of consideration rather than a sociopathic bully convincing the principle of the school that both sides involved were culpable in the fight and deserved to be punished. It's the kind of thinking that brought us austerity as a valid thing, you know?



The problem isn't that the customer service rep was not in the US, although it certainly sends a signal that $1/hour is the most American Express is willing to pay to help a customer in a stressful moment. The problem is these call centers are completely disempowered, capable of doing nothing other than following some stupid script. Don't waste my time with a badly designed algorithm. Call me with a real live human being who is trained, sympathetic, can treat me like a person. I have no doubt that someone in Bangalore is just as capable of doing that as someone in Atlanta, but their corporate overlords insist on dehumanizing them and paying them the lowest possible wage.

And the thing is, not all outsourced call centers are like this. Call into 24/7/365 guaranteed nearly instant response call centers for corporate IT stuff(IE: sonicwall contract support) and yea you get bangalore, but you get VERY knowledgeable people, with very few exceptions, who have the power to do essentially anything it takes to solve the problem up to and including sending you thousands of dollars of replacement hardware before you've even sent the malfunctioning units back, or stay on the phone with you for HOURS working out a complex befuddling issue. They're not driven to power through each call in 2 minutes and move on to the next one, and they're not stuck on some assy script.

The trick is trust, on the corporate side. And really, just bringing everything else that used to be at that level and really needs to be for what it is back up there.

I feel like i can loosely, vaguely understand the mindset of these corporations maybe just a little bit. It seems like they're afraid that if they're pushing for quickest possible resolution and highest call volume then their reps will give out too much free stuff or coupons or refunds and just generally give the customers what they want even if it isn't what they should be getting just to power through calls. This was sort of touched on in that article, about people "not following the script".

I really think it's very hard to decouple the low response rate from xenophobia too, especially when people don't even give them a chance and just instantly hang up, but are suddenly super cheery and willing to talk to an american-sounding soundboard. You really need to decouple the "offshore callcenters are given no real power and are useless and frustrating" from the "Eww, dirty foreigners, i don't want to talk to them". Attributing it to A is a bit too charitable when B is a massive issue.

My partners family is Armenian, and she grew up in Ukraine. She's the only person in her entire family who doesn't have a heavy accent. Her mom is very highly qualified in her field with years of experience working in the US, and regularly lands a TON of interviews for awesome jobs. As soon as they actually talk in to her in person their boners go flat, and every time she's been job hunting it's taken inordinately long. Similarly experienced people in her very in-demand field are always befuddled at that since they could pretty much quit and walk in to an awesome job within a week anywhere in the country, and just like the several "white girls telling black girls they're overthinking it or making it up" posts about OkCupid racism and etc, no one wants to acknowledge it or talk about it and it's just a huge elephant in the room.

I could go on with a bunch of other experiential examples, but yea. I'm sure there's probably studies on this too backing up what i'm saying here, but i don't have time to find them. The point is that you're coming at this from a fairly crappy angle if you're trying to say that the average American isn't preloaded with negative racist and xenophobic thoughts and assumptions about someone with a foreign accent that isn't associated with "classy" white people like a U.K. British accent. "But the call center workers are frustrating and have no power" is specious and reaching to me. I'm not saying you don't have a point there, but just that it's a secondary point and jumping like fucking super mario right over the elephant in the room.
posted by emptythought at 3:25 PM on December 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh sure, I believe many Americans are xenophobic and have a negative opinion of foreign accents (or foreign complexions). But when you get a call during dinner from a stranger with a fake Caller ID, and they're calling to say their name is "Johnny from Windows", and they're the fifth guy that month to try to pressure you into paying $200 to let them remote install malware on your computer, well... The fact that Johnny's got an Indian accent is the least of the problems there and I don't think giving him a Valley Girl soundboard is going to help the customer relationship much.

To put it more simply, telemarketing is just shitty.

(And I'm sorry for your Armenian family's experience with prejudice, that's just crap. Hell, she might be more closely related to Prince William than most of the "good white Americans" :-P)
posted by Nelson at 4:27 PM on December 23, 2013


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