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. OTM producer Chris Neary finds out who, or what, Samantha West really is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We are easy to go when it suits our world view or when it amuses us, but there are times when we’re just sitting at home, eating dinner, say, and bogosity literally comes calling. OTM producer Chris Neary has that story.
CHRIS NEARY: About a month ago, around noon, 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.
MICHAEL SCHERER: It's really a 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 health insurance coverage.
MICHAEL SCHERER: I have health insurance that I’m quite happy with. And I started talking back to her just sort of as a prank, and I realized that her responses were pretty canned. And so I said, you’re a computer, right? [LAUGHS] And she had a very charming laugh.
“SAMANTHA WEST”: [LAUGHS] I am a real person. Maybe we have a bad connection. I’m sorry about that.
CHRIS NEARY: Through the afternoon, Samantha West kept calling and Scherer became more and more suspicious.
MICHAEL SCHERER: I looked at my cell phone and realized that I can call her whatever 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's going on.
CHRIS 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.
“SAMANTHA WEST”: Hello, how are you today? Well, I’m calling about an online request you once made about health insurance…
CHRIS 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 cell phone.
“SAMANTHA WEST”: We work with all major companies and compare all the rates for you.
ZEKE MILLER: Oh, cool.
“SAMANTHA WEST”: I can get you a quote in about five – yes.
ZEKE MILLER: What’s your name?
“SAMANTHA WEST”: Okay, Samantha West.
CHRIS NEARY: Miller and Nicks called Samantha West about ten 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 the person you’re talking with is a robot.
ZEKE MILLER: You really do sound like a robot.
“SAMANTHA WEST”: I am a real person. Maybe we have a bad connection. I’m sorry about that.
ZEKE MILLER: Are you sure?
“SAMANTHA WEST”: Yes.
CHRIS NEARY: At some point, Nicks discarded the politeness he’d afford another human being.
DENVER NICKS: It would just make me feel so much [LAUGHS] better to hear you say, “I am not a robot.”
“SAMANTHA WEST”: [LAUGHS] What? Let me ask you a couple of questions. Are you currently on Medicare?
DENVER NICKS: No, I’m not.
“SAMANTHA WEST”: Okay.
DENVER NICKS: But now, let me ask you a question.
“SAMANTHA WEST”: - on Medicaid or looking for Medicaid?
DENVER NICKS: We’ll go – you ask me a question and then I’ll ask you a question. How about that?
“SAMANTHA WEST”: Sure.
DENVER NICKS: Okay, are you a robot?
“SAMANTHA WEST”: [PAUSE] No.
CHRIS NEARY: If you search “Samantha West” on the Internet, you’ll see not every telemarketing target is so skeptical. You see comments like -
MAN: 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’m blocking her number.
WOMAN: Samantha West keeps calling me, from 412 430-5588, even though I keep telling her to stop calling me.
CHRIS NEARY: Samantha West is not unique.
“AMANDA THOMAS”: My name is Amanda Thomas, and I’m calling –
MAN: Now, what’s the name of the company that you work for?
“AMANDA THOMAS”: - and I’m calling with the Corporation for Character on behalf of –
MAN: Corporation for Character, okay.
“AMANDA THOMAS”: I’m so sorry. I’m having a hard time hearing anything you’re saying. I’ll have a manager call back from a better phone shortly.
MAN: Oh, no, no, no, no – no, no, no, no, you say – [ ]
“AMANDA THOMAS”: And if you can’t hear me, we’ll call back another time.
CHRIS 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 is the sky?
MALE ROBOTIC VOICE: Well, I thank you so much for your time today.
WOMAN: What color is the sky?
MALE ROBOTIC VOICE: Maybe you can help out on the next drive.
WOMAN: You’re not a real person. You’re not a real person.
MALE ROBOTIC VOICE: Take care and have a good day, okay?
WOMAN: You’re not a real person.
MALE ROBOTIC VOICE: Thanks, bye-bye.
CHRIS 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.
ALEXIS MADRIGAL: Samantha West is not a robot. If we wanted to give Samantha West a, a catchy title, I would say Samantha West is a cyborg.
CHRIS 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.
ALEXIS 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 prerecorded audio to a call receiver.
CHRIS 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 that voice says by clicking on the right button.
ALEXIS 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 OF SAMANTHA WEST LAUGHING]
But the idea is that the operator gets really good at using these little conversational asides, in order to like make the conversation feel natural. So another example, you hit the = sign and say, “Exactly.” Hit the = sign, exactly.
CHRIS 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.
ALEXIS MADRIGAL: And the reason is when you have a bunch of call center workers, where the turnover is like 400 percent, multiple times the turnover at a fast food restaurant, you've got people whose incentives do not necessarily line 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 a 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.
CHRIS NEARY: Madrigal has great sympathy for telemarketers. When he was a teenager, he was a telemarketer, a bad one.
ALEXIS MADRIGAL: The voice that you’re hearing now did not sell many people in like Macon, Georgia on material safety data sheet software, but there was another woman who worked there named Kimberly who was just absolutely fantastic at the sales game. If we had had access to this technology at that time, I can tell you I would have loved to press all the buttons using Kimberly's melodious voice. And I think people forget that on the other side of a telemarketing call is some person who’s been sitting in a call dialing for dollars for ten hours.
What really got me interested in this whole system of prerecorded audio is that maybe it's better for those workers, because I do think that psychologically people have a really hard time imagining what it would be like to be rejected 150 times a day. It's bad for social animals to experience that.
CHRIS NEARY: But the people getting calls from cyborgs are social animals too. Nobody likes being lied to. And, in fact, the operator behind a 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 operator from making an honest woman of Samantha West. 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?
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
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.
DENVER NICKS: You know what would I have done if she had said, yeah, I’m a robot? Anyway, as we were saying [LAUGHS], I don’t know – I don’t know what I would have said. That’s a really – that’s heavy, man. I guess, you know, she was trying to enroll me in health insurance and I would have just said like, oh, you know, thanks for answering my question. I'm sorry I was being such a jerk. I have health insurance. Have a nice day.
CHRIS 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.