Sorry, Wrong Number

The phone rings and it tells me the call is coming from Denver. It so happens my wife has a friend in Denver, so I stupidly answer. Big mistake. A cheery voice says, “Hel-lo, my name is Tim Perry. How are you?”

My usual response to this sort of thing used to be, “What are you selling?” to which the answer would invariably be, “I’m not selling anything.” And since I knew they were lying, I would almost hang up, unless I was particularly annoyed by the unwanted intrusion and not pressed for time.

In that case I would say, “Then what do you want?” At which point they’d start in with the script, selling me something. Then I’d hang up, unless I was feeling sportive, in which case I’d say, “Sounds great. And since it’s free, just drop it in the mail.” At this point they would reveal they actually were not engaged in an eccentric charitable endeavor but were selling something. Then I’d hang up.

But lately, this robotic script has been interrupted by the frequent suspicion that I was not really talking to a human but to an actual robot caller. Odd spacing of words and syllables are often a tip off. Hel-lo. As is better diction than that of most phone bank galley slaves, but also an elusive artificial quality. A lack of vocal modulation, a sort of bland emotionless feel. The words right, but the music subtly off.

So now I often ask, “Are you a robot?” For a while this used to flummox the machines and they would reveal their digital pedigree. “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”

But lately, the programmers have upped their game. When asked if they are robots, the HAL 10,000s now often give an artificial chuckle reminiscent of, say, Mitt Romney, and ask, “Why, do I sound like a robot?” Sometimes they fool me for several exchanges.

It is easy to see where this is leading, to me becoming the poor sap in “Her” who had his most satisfying relationship with a smart phone with Scarlet Johansson’s voice.

I now think best solution to the mystery of whether Tim in Denver is live or Memorex may be the sort of quizzes the robots at various companies subject us to, in order to make sure we are really the people we are pretending to be. After inputting your password, they sometimes ask you to prove your bona fides by regurgitating secret personal information only you would know.

So, the next time Tim from Denver calls, I intend to ask, “What was the name of your first pet?” “What was your high school mascot?” What was your mother’s maiden name?” And if they get over that hurdle, “What breed of animal was Bootsie?” What were the school colors of the Fighting Sawmakers?” “What nationality were your mother’s Polanyi ancestors?”

This is my homebrew Turing test. Let’s hear you deal with that Tim or HAL or whatever your model number is?

Comments are closed.