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The Mystery of the Impressively Human-Sounding Robot Telemarketer

December 16, 2013

While robotic voices at the other end of the phone are new to no one nowadays (unless you have been stranded on a desert island for the last 15 years), some newer robotic voices are starting to get downright creepy in their realism.

Witness “Samantha West,” a nice lady who has been calling Americans to offer them affordable health insurance. When one such call arrived on the cell phone of a TIME Washington Bureau Chief Michael Scherer, he was fascinated enough to try and determine if he was speaking to a real person or a robot.

Scherer asked her if she was indeed a robot: the “woman” laughed a little and affirmed that she was indeed a real person. She was unable, however, to answer some very off-script questions, such as what vegetable tomato soup was made or, and some of her responses took longer than one might expect of a living, breathing human being. When asked a question she could not answer, she sometimes resorted to commenting that it was a “bad connection.” (You can hear recordings of her interactions here.)

TIME reporters, their curiosity piqued by a robot who denied she was a robot, called back several times to test her out. While they determined that she was indeed a voice automation solution and not a real woman, they found that she did an excellent job posing a series of questions about health coverage—”Are you on Medicare?” etc. Depending on the questions, “she” would then transfer the potential customer to a real person for further action.

The very idea of a voice automation solution that not only fools people into believing it’s a real person but actively denies that it’s a robot is either intriguing or creepy, depending on your perspective. Most of the voice automation solutions we are used to interacting with would never for a moment fool anyone into believing it was a real person on the line.

The telephone number the TIME reporters called, (484) 589-5611, has since been disconnected, and one of the insurance companies “Samantha West” was working for denied to TIME that she was a robotic voice. Automated outbound calls (“robocalls”) to individuals who have not given their express permission are now illegal, thanks to October’s changes to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). Perhaps “Samantha West” was a very innovative way to try and skirt the law: customers won’t complain about a robotic call if they don’t know it was a robotic call in the first place.

What this all means, of course, is that the company that build the innovative interactive speech technology “Samantha West” is built on can’t claim credit where credit is due. 

Edited by Cassandra Tucker