When Time Washington bureau chief Michael Scherer got a call from a telemarketer named Samantha West, he knew the voice on the other end of the line wasn't quite right somehow. Yet Samantha West kept insisting she was, in fact, human. Chris Neary finds out who, or what, Samantha West really is.
Song: "Tilliboyo (Sunset)" by Kronos Quartet
BOB: After 4 years at WNYC, producer Chris Neary has moved on to something new, but we didn’t want him to leave without a little fanfare. During his time here, not only did Chris helped produce the show, he also amassed a pretty impressive list of pieces that he reported himself. There’s the piece about the little TV channel, hosted and produced for and by people with autism; a profile of the little guy losing a legal battle against the RIAA, who was suing him for 675,000 dollars.
BROOKE: There’s the profile of the guy who wasn’t the mastermind behind bitcoin...but could have been; a story about the little school newspaper that stood up to bullies and refused to use the name of their own football team, the Redskins; and of course his moving obit for the New Jersey magician, Bruce Bray. The common thread that drew most of Chris’s pieces together is that they are about relatively unknown people, committed to what they do. Like him. Of course, his favorite piece doesn’t fit that mold at all. Oh, Chris.
NEARY: Time Magazine Washington bureau chief Michael Scherer was closing that week’s issue of the magazine when he got a call on his cell phone.
SCHERER: it’s a really delightful voice...incredibly engaging, friendly, slightly flirty
SAMANTHA WEST: Hello...how are you today. I’m calling about an online request you once made about online health insurance coverage.
SCHERER: I have health-insurance that I’m quite happy with.
SCHERER: And I started talking back to her just sort of as a prank and I realized her responses were pretty canned. And so I said... ‘You’re a computer right?’ and she had a very charming laugh:
SAMANTHA WEST: [Laugh.] I am a real person...maybe we have a bad connection I’m sorry about that.
NEARY: Through the afternoon, Samantha West kept calling. And Scherer became more and more suspicious.
SCHERER: I looked at my cellphone and I realized I could call her whenever I wanted and she would answer the phone as if she was calling me. And so I told the other people in my bureau that we should find out what was going on and...
NEARY: One of those people was Zeke Miller - he covers the White House for Time.
ZEKE MILLER: Michael walked down the hall to my office and said, “Dial this number.”
Sound: Phone dialing.
SAMANTHA: Hello, how are you today? I’m calling about an online request you once made about health insurance...
NEARY: Intrigued by Samantha’s dubious humanity, Zeke and another Time reporter, Denver Nicks, pressed the issue, repeatedly calling her back using the number on Scherer’s cellphone
SAMANTHA: We work with all major companies and compare all the rates for you.
MILLER: Oh cool.
SAMANTHA: I can get you a quote in about five--[Pause] Yes.
MILLER: What’s your name?
SAMANTHA: Ok. Samantha West.
NEARY: Miller and Nicks called Samantha West about 10 times. When they began by asking “Are you a robot?” she’d politely hang-up. So they learned to humor her by answering a few of her health care questions -- building slowly to the only question that matters when you suspect you’re the person you’re talking with is a robot.
MILLER: You really do sound like a robot.
SAMANTHA: I am a real person. Maybe we have a bad connection, I’m sorry about that.
MILLER: Are you sure?
NEARY: At some point, Nicks discarded the politeness you’d afford to another human being.
DENVER NICKS:It would just make me feel so much better to hear you say… “I am not a robot.”
SAMANTHA: ...what? (Laughs) Let me ask you a couple questions. Are you currently on Medicare?
NICKS: No. I’m not.
NICKS: Now let me ask you a question. We’ll go, you ask me a question and then I’ll ask you a question. How ‘bout that?
NICKS: Ok, are you a robot?
NEARY: If you search “Samantha West” on the internet, you’ll see not every telemarketing target is so skeptical. You see comments like:
VOICE 1: I always hang up on her because she calls and identifies herself and then says nothing. I don’t know what she wants but I am blocking her number.
VOICE 2: Samanta West keeps calling me from 412-430-5588 even though I keep telling her to stop calling me.
NEARY: Samantha West is not unique.
AMANDA: My name is Amanda Thomas and I work for Corporations for Character.
CHARLES: No, what’s the name of the company that you work for? Corporation…?
AMANDA: I’m sorry I’m having a hard time hearing you right now...I’ll have a manager call back…
CHARLES: No, no, no, no.You stay right on the phone Ms. Thomas...Ms. Thomas...
NEARY: The Tampa Bay Times and the Center for Investigative Journalism looked at charities that use these kinds of calls. (That’s where these recordings are from.)
WOMAN: What color’s the sky?
MAN’S VOICE: Well I thank you so much for your time...
WOMAN: What color’s the sky!
MAN: Take care and have a good day.
WOMAN: You’re not a real person...you’re not a real person.
NEARY: People who are fooled by Samantha West and her ilk don’t record their calls. And some of them probably buy insurance. But listening to that kind of tape it’s impossible to conclude she’s a real person. Which means she’s a robot.
MADRIGAL: Samantha West is not a robot. I think if we wanted to give Samantha West a catchy title, I would say Samantha West is a cyborg.
NEARY: The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal has written at length about the Samantha Wests of the world. (A brief note for non-sci fi fans: a cyborg is a human who has their mind or body augmented by technological devices.)
MADRIGAL: What Samantha West is is a person sitting either in Utah or the Philippines - my guess is the Philippines - pressing buttons on a computer that play pre-recorded audio to a call receiver...
NEARY: So when a telemarketing target picks up a call from Samantha West, they hear her energetic, perky voice - but there’s a human operator controlling what the voice says by clicking on the right button.
MADRIGAL: They can hit for example L to laugh. And they can just keep hitting the L to do that, so it’s like:
Sound: Robotic laughter.
MADRIGAL: But the idea is that the operator gets really good at using these little conversational asides in order to make the conversation feel natural. So another example, you hit the equal sign and say exactly, hit the equal sign - exactly.
NEARY: While cyborg Samantha West may be unsettling to contemplate, Madrigal says he found versions of Samantha West that were, if not honest, at least more honest. And some of the companies who sell Samantha-like systems claim it can prevent fraud.
Madrigal: And the reason is, when you have a bunch of call center workers, where the turnover is, like, 400%... multiple times the turnover at a fast food restaurant...You've got people whose incentives do not necessarily align with always saying exactly the right thing. I mean these are people who are living pretty close to the edge of survival, making ends meet. And you've got their managers relentlessly flogging them, trying to get them to make more sales. And so what you have is people sometimes, say, don't read all the disclosures that they're supposed to read because they know it’ll take too much time and they might lose the sale. And so the big pitch actually for a lot - particularly the American based companies that sell this technology is that every single thing will be said exactly as the script wanted it said.
NEARY: But nobody likes being lied to. And in fact, the operator behind Samantha West is free to jump into the conversation at any time and initiate a human-to-human interaction. So there’s nothing stopping a righteous programmer from making an honest woman of Samantha West.
MADRIGAL: Can that overcome the kind of original sin that you're not talking to another human's voice? I don't know. ...If Tommy in Utah is placing the call, is listening to the call, is responding to you live, like - are you talking to a human?
NEARY: We already have automated tutors, diagnosticians, and bureaucrats. But we know they’re machines. What if cyborg salespeople like Samantha did come clean? Here’s one of the Time reporters, Denver Nicks.
NICKS: What would I have done if she had said, “Yeah I’m a robot, anyway, as we were saying”... I don’t know what I would have said. That’s really - that’s heavy, man. [Laughs] I guess I would just - I guess, you know, she was trying to enroll me in health insurance I would have just said, “Oh, you know, thanks for answering my question, sorry I was being such a jerk. I have health insurance have a nice day.”
NEARY: So Samantha West could actually help. Telemarketing is often a scam. What if honesty could be automated?
For On the Media, I’m Chris Neary.