Almost Human: The Surreal, Cyborg Future of Telemarketing

Americans are fielding millions of calls from bright, energetic telemarketers, but what they don't know is that they're talking to machines... Sort of. 
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Flickr Commons/Edited by Alexis Madrigal

This is a story about how the future gets weird. 

It's about how humans interact with each other, and machines, and systems that can only properly be called cyborg. 

Let's start, though, with a man sitting on a couch. His phone rings. It's a telemarketer for a home security service. 

"This is Richard, how are you today?" asks the telemarketer. His voice is confident and happy. His accent is classic American. Perhaps he grew up in Nebraska.

Richard continues, "I'm just calling you with a very special offer. My company, the Home Security Company, is giving away a free wireless home security system and in-home installation."

The man on the couch tries to claim he's busy, but the telemarketer parries, "I know you're busy, but this'll just take a few minutes," then soldiers on.

They go back and forth for several minutes before the telemarketer successfully pushes him down the sales funnel to a specialist who will set up an in-home visit. 

Such conversations happen millions of times a year, but they are not what they appear. Because while a human is picking up the phone, and a human is dialing the phone, this is not, strictly speaking, a conversation between two humans.

Instead, a call-center worker in Utah or the Philippines is pressing buttons on a computer, playing through a marketing pitch without actually speaking. Some people who market these services sometimes call this "voice conversion" technology. Another company says it's "agent-assisted automation technology."

My own wordplay for it would be automatonationafter the great mechanical inventions of the 18th century that simulated complex processes through the artful combination of men and machines. Semi-autonomous telemarketing connects nicely with the developments it parallels in the drone world.  "Ventriloquistic telemarketing" has a nice, multisyllabic ring, too.

But perhaps the best term is "cyborg telemarketing." As one experienced manager in the Philippines told me, "Basically, the agent is just the driver but the system has its own life. The agents work as ears and hands of the system." At its best, computer system and operator merge like a character from the movie Avatar and his or her steed. 

How does this work, in practice?

Let's look at one company that provides this product, Avatar Technologies, which advertises itself as "Outsourcing Without the Accent." They created the video above.

The Avatar interface looks like this:

Avatar's interface (Avatar Technologies PHL)

While the man on the couch might was just sitting there talking, the Avatar agent would have been sitting in the Filipino city of Jaro Iloilo, staring at an interface. The keyboard has hotkeys that can play different sound clips that were recorded by a perfect English speaker. Here are two samples Avatar provides on its website, "Dale Harris" from the US and "Samantha" from Australia:

Avatar is not alone in selling these services, though they are the newest company in the field, having been founded in the summer of 2012.

I found three other companies that sell cyborg call-center software or services like this, all of which are based in Utah. CallAssistant is headquartered in Logan, Utah, but has several call centers including a small one in the Philippines; Perfect Pitch Technologies has offices in Lehi, Utah and Albay in the Philippines; KomBea is also based in Lehi. 

Jacob Munns, the CEO of Perfect Pitch told me that the companies' location in Utah was the result of "blind luck." The principals of the three companies had worked together in various capacities but then went their separate ways.

While each place has obviously engineered its own solution, the basics of the companies' systems are similar. All the audio is pre-recorded and it's triggered live in response to what a call receiver says. In some cases, a single call-center worker will run two or even three calls at the same time. 

The audio breaks down into two categories. The first contains the more scripted bits of salesmanship, which, in CallAssistant technology, are mapped to the number keys. The second set of sounds are the little conversational asides that help make the conversation feel more natural. Hit "L," for example, and the voice laughs. Hit the equals sign, and the voice says, "Exactly." 

More sophisticated systems have multiple responses for each type of question that might be asked by a call receiver. So, for example, if a customer asks about the company of the telemarketer, one might press Ctrl+C. On the first press, the voice would say, "The name of my company is XYZ." On the second press, the voice would change tone and wording: "Um yeah I'm from XYZ company?" On the third press, you might get, "It's XYZ company and we offer ABC."

In other implementations, the telemarketing humans can step in with their own voices to answer queries. KomBea has gone the farthest with this idea. They practice what they call "accent neutralization." Their pre-scripted audio is recorded in the location of the call center, using workers who speak perfect, barely accented English. This reduces the difference between voices if one of the humans has to step in with his or her own voice. For example, in booking an appointment, a callee might say, "Come out the 22nd." The live agent could then say, "Of which month?" before switching back to pre-recorded audio. The goal is to minimize or eliminate the ability of customers to distinguish between the two voices over short stretches of conversation.

"I can promise you that 99 percent of the people do not know that the agent just shifted from pre-recorded to a live voice and back to pre-recorded audio," KomBea's CEO, Art Coombs, told me. 

All these different measures are part of making the human-cyborg conversation feel "natural," even though it is anything but. A company that helps firms stay on the right side of American telemarketing regulations looked at CallAssistant's "Echo" technology, and made this point in a glowing review.

"The Echo technology merely substitutes sound files for the agent’s  voice (although the agent can also interject with his or her own voice at any time) and assures positive interactive experiences for the consumer. CallAssistant’s agents interact with callers by selecting the appropriate audio file responses..." the company wrote. "The customer experiences a completely natural conversation complete with laughing, positive affirmation, and most importantly, natural interaction. "

Let's just put it out there: This a creepy system. On the Internet, no one may know you're a dog, but on the phone? It just seems wrong. What good could spring from a bunch of conversations in which one member is ventriloquizing through a machine? 

And yet, in the course of reporting this story, in talking with a half dozen people here and in the Philippines, I've come to reconsider that initial reaction.

It may be that only a cyborg solution can alleviate the inhumane nature of modern telemarketing labor.

Let's imagine that cyborg telemarketing makes call-center workers happier, call receivers more satisfied, and the sales companies more successful. Everyone wins.

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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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