Last Friday while I was comparing two boards visually under the microscope to try to work out why they behaved differently, my phone rang. It was a telemarketer. I always try to be polite to telemarketers. They have a hard job. For a year in college I worked in an economic survey lab calling people with the survey used to determine the Consumer Confidence Index and other economic indicators.
This telemarketer was promoting a security system. I actually listened to the pitch because we have considered getting some security improvements for our home. I wish I had made notes, though, because this telemarketing call turned out to be a first of what I suspect will become commonplace.
The telemarketer went by “Jane” and had an accent I couldn’t place. She spoke fast and fluent. I guessed she had learned English from a speaker with a non-rhotic accent and was now pronouncing all R sounds heavily in an effort to emulate the so-called “neutral American” accent used by American radio and TV personalities.
CJ: What kind of security system is this?
Jane: We would install this equipment valued at over $1000 at no cost to you.
CJ: Interesting. I’m on the web right now searching for your company. What was the name?
Jane: Our name is Home Protection.
CJ: Right. Here... Is your website protect your greatest protection com?
Jane: I can’t answer that, but that would be a great question for a specialist.
CJ: You mean you can’t tell me your website?
Jane: I’m sorry. I’m only supposed to answer questions on my script.
CJ: You can’t even tell me your website?
Jane: I could connect you with someone to answer that.
CJ: Wait.. You’re not real. You’re a bot!
Jane: I assure you I am real.
CJ: Oh, sorry. [Laughter]
Jane: [Female laughter]
CJ: Well, I don’t think I’m interested, but thanks for offering. Sorry for my confusion.
Jane: No worries. I would ask you to consider that this system has some of the best technology and would be installed as a trial offer at no cost to you.
CJ: Wait. I’m sorry. I have to ask you a question. What’s the sum of 1+1?
Jane: I can only answer questions on my script.
CJ: But you know 1+1!?
Jane: uh... yeah I don’t know about that. One of our technical support people could answer that question.
CJ: You cannot answer?
Jane: ummm.. I can only answer questions on my script?
CJ: You’ve failed the Turing Test.
I felt like a fool when I hung up after talking for about two minutes to a bot. I searched the web for stories of similar calls. All I found were accounts of “robocalling” with no details about interactive bots.
I hope I would have detected the bot sooner if I had not been lost in thought about the board I was troubleshooting. Also, I realized when I heard a telemarketer I immediately imagined someone in a call center similar to where I worked 16 years ago where I sometimes called people in Spanish, in which I’m very proficient but not fluent. My mind automatically fit everything the bot said into that narrative.
I suspect within a ten years I will getting calls that are harder to detect. They may come in other forms such as e-mail or messages on websites.
Is this just a case my being caught off guard with my mind lost in the microscope? Or is this one tiny milepost on the long road to singularity?