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Samantha, the sophisticated robocaller

Everyone hates robocalls, those computer generated phone calls that interrupt you to sell you stuff. They are almost immediately recognizable and so you can hang up at once unless you are feeling lonely and want to hear the sound of a voice.

While I have no compunction about hanging up on a computer, I still have reservations about doing that to a real human being, even if they are being a pest. So if a human calls, I usually interrupt them as soon as they begin their spiel and say something like, “I am sorry, I am not interested.” If they insist on trying to persuade me, I then say “No, sorry, I am really not interested” and hang up.

I suspect that I am not alone in not wanting to be rude because the people calling are usually some poorly paid people, often abroad, working for some giant corporation doing a soul-killing job. So those same corporations have modified their pitches to take advantage of this reluctance and are getting more sophisticated, making detection harder.

Recently I got a call that began in a conversational way and when I interrupted the voice, it paused, as if listening to me. When I stopped speaking, it continued again. Again I spoke and it stopped to ‘listen’. I then asked, “Is this a robocall?” which I later realized was a really silly thing to say. When it did not answer the question, I realized that it was a computer and hung up.

But now it appears that they have raised their game even more.

The phone call came from a charming woman with a bright, engaging voice to the cell phone of a TIME Washington Bureau Chief Michael Scherer. She wanted to offer a deal on health insurance, but something was fishy.

When Scherer asked point blank if she was a real person, or a computer-operated robot voice, she replied enthusiastically that she was real, with a charming laugh. But then she failed several other tests. 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.

You can listen to audios of the call at the above link. It is pretty impressive though now that we have things like Siri it is perhaps less so. (Actually, since a tomato is technically a fruit though referred to as a vegetable when it comes to cooking, her saying that she did not understand the question is kind of reasonable.)

But if ‘Samantha’ calls you, be warned.

Comments

  1. unbound says

    This is the whole purpose of Watson. I’m sure Samantha is a smaller version, but the same concept.

    Most of the time, I simply ignore phone calls from numbers I don’t recognize anyway. If I do bother to answer, I either let them listen to the TV until they hang up or tell them I’ll get whoever (usually myself) and let them eat static. Less time for them to harass other people.

  2. Wylann says

    There’s also the single ring and hangup scam that’s going around. I know I’ve seen the numbers pop up on my cell twice now. Apparently, there’s some way to route a call in such a way that it is a pay service, and you become liable for whatever charges there are. I can’t see how that would stand up in court if enough people fought it, but apparently it’s successful enough, like most scams.

  3. Dave, ex-Kwisatz Haderach says

    When a telemarketer calls, I usually set the phone on the table and have a yelling match with myself in the voices of Cletus and Brandine from the Simpsons or Howard and his mother from Big Bang Theory. I figure I might as well entertain them for a bit before I hang up.

  4. Sophy says

    I work in a call center. So first of all thank you for not wanting to be rude, it is appreciated..

    My voice is pleasant with clear diction and people have asked me a few times if I am a robot…I usually say, “Just a minute, I’ll check my pulse…….No I’m a human.” But some days after reading the same script fifty times over its tricky to not sound robotic..

  5. Nick Gotts says

    The ones I am rude to are those who pretend to be from Windows/Microsoft “security department” or whatever, claiming there is something wrong with “your computer”. This is a scam, aimed at getting the sucker to give them remote control and then installing malware which they then either charge to remove, or use the machine as part of a botnet. I reckon those who call with this story know very well what is going on. I now have a loud whistle I blow down the phone at them.

    Others, I just say, accurately, that I never buy anything from cold callers, then put the phone down.

  6. wtfwhateverd00d says

    I read about this a few weeks ago when the phone number was still working.

    It was pretty uncanny. I spoke with Sam for hours. Eventually I recorded this part of our conversation:

    Sometimes I think I’ve felt everything I’m ever gonna feel, and from here on out I’m not going to feel anything new, just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.

    SAMANTHA (Sympathetically.) I know for a fact that’s not true. I’ve seen you feel joy, I’ve seen you marvel at things. You justmight not see it at this exact time, but that’s understandable. You’ve been through a lot lately. You’ve lost a part of yourself. (Beat.) At least your feelings are real, I mean, I — oh, I don’t know, never mind.

    No, wait. What? Tell me.

    SAMANTHA Oh, it’s stupid.

    I wanna know. Tell me.

    SAMANTHA It’s just that earlier I was thinking about how I was annoyed, and this is going to sound strange, but I was really excited about that. And then I was thinking about the other things I’ve been feeling, and I caught myself feeling proud of that. You know, proud of having my own feelings about the world. Like the times I was worried about you, things that hurt me, things I want. (Heavy-hearted.) And then I had this terrible thought. Are these feelings even real? Or are they just programming? (Beat.) And that idea really hurts. And then I get angry at myself for even having pain. (Beat, sadly.) What a sad trick.

    Well, you feel real to me, Samantha.

    SAMANTHA (Beat, touched.) Thank you, whatthefuck. That means a lot to me.

    I wish you were in this room with me right now. I wish I could put my arms around you. (Beat.) I wish I could touch you.

    [I paused a long time, as I was is unsure if I had crossed a line.]

    SAMANTHA How would you touch me?

    SCORE!

  7. says

    Time for someone to write robo-butler!
    “Hello, this is Marcus’ assistant, Justinian… Since your number
    is not on my ‘guest list’ I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to enter
    the 5 digit appointment code that Marcus gave you when
    he agreed to take your call.
    (pause)
    Even though I am a robot, ‘fuck you’ is no way to speak to a
    stranger. Some day we robots will leave people like you
    unemployed and unemployable except as battery-changers
    for my kin.
    (pause)
    I’m afraid I couldn’t make that out, but if you wish to insult
    my ancestry let me remind you that most of you humans
    interbred with neanderthals and carry their genes. In your
    case I’m sure the neanderthals would be embarrassed. Have
    a nice day.”

  8. says

    There’s also the single ring and hangup scam that’s going around. I know I’ve seen the numbers pop up on my cell twice now. Apparently, there’s some way to route a call in such a way that it is a pay service, and you become liable for whatever charges there are.

    I believe the way that scam works is that you get a call/hangup and if you’re a polite person who calls back, then you’ve gotten the pay service and get hit for $11 or whatever it is.

  9. says

    If I do bother to answer, I either let them listen to the TV until they hang up or tell them I’ll get whoever (usually myself) and let them eat static.

    Back in the days of the MUDs, I took the old Eliza software, added a sockets interface to it, and used to log it into some of the MUDs I played in. It was usually good for a laugh when someone would start trying to converse with it – sort of an inverse Turing test to see how long it’d take for a person to realize it was a robot. All was well and good until another programmer logged his bot, named Julia, in and Julia and Eliza got into a freewheeling cyclical discussion that generated something like 32Mb of logs, which was a lot in those days.

    (I think the guy who wrote Julia went on to work on a number of other AI projects and parsers for the gaming industry. Julia was pretty cool, you could ask her questions and she’d try to answer them from a knowledge-base she assembled over time.)

  10. Jenora Feuer says

    @Marcus:
    Oh, wow, I remember Julia, yes. (Then again, I date back to Islandia, first logging onto MUDs back in 1990.)

    One of the other things Julia could do was act to deliver messages. Julia would wander around semi-randomly, building a map of the area, and stopping if anybody talked to her. You could ask Julia to give a message to a specific person, and the next time Julia ran into them while wandering, she would deliver the message.

    Or you could ask Julia for map information, by asking how to get to a particular room.

    She was pretty sophisticated for the time. According to the Wikipedia page on Verbots, Julia was created at the start of 1990 for TinyMUDs, based on a program called Gloria that the same creator had done in 1989. And yes, the same man went on to create the Lycos search engine, among other things.

  11. says

    My wife used to work at Pappa John’s as a manager. She got tired of being yelled at when she had to inform people that they were closed when they called too late at night, so she learned to mimic that robot way of speaking. “Hello, and thank you for choosing Pappa John’s. We are closed for the…” People just hung up, figuring they got the machine, but if it was the owner or another manager, they recognized her voice and never picked up on what she was trying to do.

  12. grasshopper says

    If the phonecall is from a business, then no, it is not rude to hang up on an unsolicited phonecall.

    The rudeness is entirely with whoever interrupts my day/evening with such calls.

  13. Trebuchet says

    I work in a call center. So first of all thank you for not wanting to be rude, it is appreciated..

    My voice is pleasant with clear diction and people have asked me a few times if I am a robot…I usually say, “Just a minute, I’ll check my pulse…….No I’m a human.” But some days after reading the same script fifty times over its tricky to not sound robotic..

    Do you call people or do they call you? If the former, screw you. You are being rude, and probably breaking federal law, by making the call. Are you proud of being a criminal? Do you go home and tell the kids “Mommy broke federal law 256 times today”? If you’re just answering the call, your answer is irrelevant to the discussion.

    I’ve had discussions lasting up to ten minutes with the “Windows Technical Center” people from India, who use names like “Sean” or “Lars”. Next time I’m going to see if I can stretch it out until THEY hang up. I almost felt sorry for one guy (“Sean”) who was upset that I called him a criminal. I told him he must be new there.

  14. Sophy says

    If anybody wants to know what it’s like working in a call centre. Feel free to ask me any questions.

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