The Only Thing Weirder Than a Telemarketing Robot

When a salesperson named Samantha West called a Time reporter, she seemed like a computer. But with current technology, it might not be possible to build such a robot, raising a truly bizarre possibility.
The Turk Chess Automaton (Bibliodyssey)

Sometimes, you have to think like a scammer.

So, when I saw that an apparent robot telemarketer named Samantha West had randomly called a Time writer and denied she/it/they was a robot, I wondered: where could I buy such an interactive voicebot? 

This query led me down a strange rabbit hole. And along the way, 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.

I know. It's weird. But let me explain.

First, let's hear "Samantha": 

Clearly, this is not human conversation: there are repeated laughs and weird phrases. "She failed several other [humanity] tests," Time wrote. "When asked 'What vegetable is found in tomato soup?' she said she did not understand the question. When asked multiple times what day of the week it was yesterday, she complained repeatedly of a bad connection."

It seems so open and shut.

So, Time's story ran with the plausible headline, "Meet the Robot Telemarketer Who Denies She's a Robot." And many other blogs went with that explanation, too.

But if this kind of robotic telemarketing is possible, why don't we see it more often? Every other kind of spam, if it is technically possible, becomes pervasive.

* **

The first step to acquiring a voicebot like this was to figure out what the people selling it might call it. Certainly they would not refer to their services as "robot telemarketing."

I started looking for the right jargon to Google. As it turns out, there are two key phrases: "interactive voice response" and "outbound." Interactive voice response refers to telephone systems that can process what you're saying and respond appropriately (even intelligently at times). Outbound call centers make calls; the inverse, inbound, refers to systems that receive calls from customers.

So, put them together and you have, "Outbound IVR," which Datamonitor projected should be a half billion dollar market by now.

Outbound IVR, though, is not generally supposed to be used for telemarketing. It's supposed to be used to deliver automated messages and provide just a smidgen of interactivity. So, a common use case might be to call a debtor up and ask them to pay a bill. Then the machine can take that payment without transferring you to a human. Or automated scheduling: a doctor's office could confirm that a patient has an appointment with the voicebot. 

Why isn't outbound IVR used for telemarketing?

Well, primarily because IVR is really, really hard. It is widely recognized that voice-to-text with your phone (i.e. Siri) is far from reliable. And Siri actually has a lot better data to work with. An IVR bot has to work with the low-quality audio that's transmitted through the public switched telephone network (PSTN). Quality, in this case, being a quantitative measure of how much data is in the audio. 

That's why the voice recognition on company telephone systems is a target for mockery. ("I said three. No, no, I said THREE. THREE!") And when someone is calling into a company, the company severely restricts the scenarios that the IVR bot has to work within. The bot knows what it's listening for. And it's still just OK.

Now, Samantha West actually uses a bunch of different responses as it tries to pose as a general-purpose salesperson. The queries that the editors launch at Samantha are pretty complex, and yet she comes back with an appropriate (if limited) response. 

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