Robot-denying telemarketing robot may not actually be a robot

Illustration for article titled Robot-denying telemarketing robot may not actually be a robot

Remember that super-realistic telemarketing chatbot who denies she's a robot? Turns out "Samantha West" may not a robot after all — but the real story is just as bizarre.


As Time is now reporting, the telemarketing robot is actually a computer program used by telemarketers outside the United States. According to John Rasman of U.S.-based Premier Health, the system allows English speaking telemarketers with thick non-American accents to sort through leads to find real prospective buyers before passing them off to agents back in the United States. "We're just contacting people in a way they're not familiar with," said Rasman. The human agents who trigger Samantha West's responses act as brokers for health insurance companies inside the U.S.

So, when Samantha West calls, there's another person on the other end of the line who actively participates in the exchange. Rasman told Time that human telemarketers — heavy accents and all — communicate using a machine that spouts off pre-recorded utterances. He insisted that humans are involved in the mix, and that the canned responses don't change that fact that no "robot" is involved.

Denver Nicks of Time writes:

But the peculiar thing about Samantha West isn't just that she is automated. It's that she's so smartly automated that she's trained to respond to queries about whether or not she is a robot by telling you she's a human. I asked [industry expert Chris] Haerich if there is a regulation against robots lying to you.

"I don't…know…that…," she said. "That's one I've never been asked before. I've never been asked that question. Ever."

Hmm, seems like a pretty grey area to me. Technically speaking, the system — a kind of robocall — is still automated in the sense that no human is actually communicating directly with the person receiving the call, even if they are pre-recorded responses. What's more, Samantha West is explicitly denying that she's not human. At the same time, however, human telemarketers are required to stick to scripted responses. Is this any different?

Moreover, the automated responses could be seen as a kind of assistive device — the same kind that could be used for people who lack the capacity for speech. We wouldn't call them robots, would we?


I'd love to get your opinions on this. Please share in comments!

More at Time.

Top image: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock.



Erik Sofge

There's really no established, universal definition of what is and isn't a robot—dictionaries don't help, and neither does R.U.R., which is a bonkers (if very cool) play, not an academic treatise or work of earnest speculative fiction.

But my own knee-jerk reaction is to say that this is not robotic to any appreciable degree, in that it doesn't appear to be automated at all. It's a soundboard, basically, the digital equivalent of having a shelf full of records or audio tapes at hand, ready to be grabbed and played as necessary. The responses aren't adapting to include new info, the system isn't sensing its environment.

To be honest, I still don't get why people find this situation alarming. Compared to all the nervous-making things that telemarketers do, in terms of buying info collected by data brokers, a relatively clunky recorded-response system seems pretty boring.