A robot called me last night, and I don’t know how to feel about it
Google impressed everyone with it’s project Duplex mid 2018. We were glued to our screens as we saw a wonderful human-like conversation unfold before our eyes between software and various people on the phone, completely unaware that they were corresponding with a non-sentient being. Ethical and legal questions quickly came up as humans caught a glimpse of a somewhat disturbing, yet somewhat useful, future. But we were still some time away from making this a regular occurrence. Or so we were told.
I’m not one to answer the phone normally, as I haven’t received a real phone call in years now. Most of my communication with family and friends is done through some communication based app, like WhatsApp or Google Hangouts. So 99.99% of all of my phone calls are irrelevant to me. But every now and then, as the phone numbers area-code matches my own, I get an impulse to answer. The fantastical stories of who could be on the other line begin to flood the creative centers of my brain, and I answer.
Hey, is this Steve?
The voice wants to know. Whew. This will spare me from having to have human conversation for a bit longer today, I think to myself, as I politely let the individual know that I wasn’t Steve.
Me: Nope, sorry. Wrong number.
Oh! So sorry to bother you. What’s your name?
Me: I’m Walt
As I was about to hang up, which is the expected outcome of these types of conversations, the voice apologetically tells me that they were very very sorry to intrude, and if I could help them anyway. Playing on my human emotions of wanting to help, I asked him what it is that he wanted. This started a long chain of back and forths with little to no humor, awkward pauses, too much enthusiasm, and inevitably of me questioning the nature of reality and the mind.
Awesome! Well maybe you can help me still if you have a minute?
Me: Uh. Okay
Awesome! Well my name is Justin, and I’m calling from a non-profit and we’re looking to gather up a few small donations for disabled police officers in your area today.
Of course. Donations. The voice went on describing the “non-profit” and it’s many virtues in our world. One being their acceptance of AI phone calling software apparently.
Would it be possible to send you some more information in the mail?
Shoot. This guy is good. The questions asked so far were hard to turn down, as they required very little work on my end. Most polite people, I would imagine, would answer in the exact same manner that I did. Most of the time, if somebody offers you something for free, you take it, even if you don’t really want it.
Me: Uh, sure. Why not.
Excellent! Very awesome to hear. Once I get your address you’ll have that shipped right off and you can mail us your donation. Does that sound good?
Now I have to give him my address I thought. Or maybe I can still get out of this somehow still. This entire time however, there was a noticeable “gap” in his speech pattern. Like a robotic voice from any screen reader or movie from the 80’s, but much much shorter. Small enough to suggest some level of humanity, but still long enough to give a hint that something wasn’t quite right here.
At this moment, I had a strange feeling that I might be talking to a non-human voice. I at least had to consider the possibility. Even if just based on the speech delay. And in a mix of confusion, but more than anything curiosity, I wanted to know more. He hadn’t repeated my name ever, and he was always upbeat with every reply. But he always answered somewhat appropriately, even if deviating the conversation a bit, my brain was able to make sense of it because it was related to the question asked I figured.
Me: What’s the minimum donation amount?
Uh huh. Uh huh. While I can definitely understand that not everyone can donate a large amount, we are very flexible with the amount and would never want to make it difficult for you. Does that make sense?
Me: Uh, yeah that sounds fine.
What is the donation amount you would like to give?
Me: Well, with the economy and such, and weather patterns…
I decided to have fun at this point to see if this Schrodinger’s cat of an entity (both human and bot to me at once) would play along. Except, I found this difficult. My responses were so…pre determined. There are only so many ways to answer a question in our human language. Maybe it isn’t so hard to mimic human speech I figured.
Me: How’s 15$ dollars sound Justin?
I still remembered his name apparently, which is odd. Maybe it was his friendly demeanor that did it. That amount would sound pretty good to me if I were collecting donations. Again, my answers are very predictable I noticed later on. When someone asks you how much you are able to give you don’t respond with the word “car” or “tree”. You give them an amount.
Great! Is that an amount that you are comfortable with. We definitely don’t want to intrude in any way?
Playing on my humanity again. This is an emotional roller coaster of a ride for me. I’m both intrigued still but deep down wondering just how paranoid I am. Maybe it is a human I thought. Maybe Justin is just a nice guy from Seattle (or wherever) who’s looking to collect funds for a good cause and he is concerned about saving me a dollar or two and not intruding. Maybe his voice just cracks at a strange frequency range and he takes noticeable 1.4–1.7 second pauses in between sentences.
In the heat of the moment, one has very little time to think about these things. And the predictable Pavlov’s Dogs of answers just seep out of the human vocal chords.
Me: Uh. I suppose so…
I respond somewhat with uncertainty. I wanted to try different word patterns that weren’t common. I wanted to avoid the “sure’s” and “yeap” and “of course” that we are so accustomed to in our day to day lives when showing approval for something. I wanted to target the words and phrases that only humans have learned and adapted and can understand based on years of conversations and also based on emotions. I was hoping that my uncertainty would trigger a different response from Justin.
I’m sorry. What was that?
Dammit Justin. Do I correct myself? Do I give the answer that he’s looking for? In a somewhat hazy panic, I give in.
Me: Yeah, that’s fine.
Excellent, well thank you so much!
Me: So can I give you the add..
Justin cuts me off here and doesn’t let me finish my sentence.
I’ll transfer you really quickly and we’ll get the process rolling! Thanks!
And my encounter with Justin ends here. Just 2 minutes long, which is 1.5 minutes longer than most of my phone conversations to be honest. Seconds later a more human sounding voice jumps on the line. They don’t know my name or the amount of the donation I offered to give, or anything that went on just moments before. It’s a calling center. Dozens of voices going in the background. A not so friendly voice with a slight accent replaces the charismatic, yet somewhat aloof Justin. This seems more..normal, I think to myself. The uncanny valley feeling that had been building up has ended.
The conversation that followed was not very interesting and ran by in under 10 seconds. It was actually almost less human in a way.
Thank you for your interest in wanting to help out our non-profit today. What’s the amount you wish to donate?
Is that 15$ or 50$?
Great. Let me pull up your record Mr…
Me: What name do you have on file?
Me: Yeah..that’s the wrong name.
The conversation could have started here, I thought to myself. Nothing would have changed. The “wrong number” reply followed by a “not interested today”. Followed by an “okay, have a nice day”. A conversation that I have had hundreds of times in my lifetime. Which is exactly how it ended up once the more human persona jumped on the line.
They asked for my credit card number, unaware of the information package that Justin had promised to mail to me. They weren’t as personable, and didn’t enjoy their job very much. You can tell in the tone of their voice. They probably called hundreds of people that day before getting to me, and were tired.
Justin wasn’t tired though. He could have called millions of people with that same upbeat demeanor. He was polite and answered my questions, albeit with longer answers that were required to get to the point. He asked questions and waited for responses patiently and gave positive reinforcement in a strange cause-effect game of Pong. If the goal of the conversation was to get information transferred between 2 entities in an efficient manner, then Justin had done his job.
I can’t say that I wasn’t overly bothered by the whole thing in the end, maybe just because of the uncertainty factor in all of it. Or maybe because the brain does indeed find it difficult to believe to some extent due to the uncanny nature of it all. But I also wasn’t against it, if it were indeed true. Perhaps put to better use, instead of attempting to collect credit card numbers would have helped. As with most things in life, the betterment of society normally doesn’t come first on the list of priorities. At least not immediately.
I still don’t know if Justin is real or not, and I don’t know if I’ll ever really know. Or maybe he’s real in his own way. Maybe he’s realer than some of us can be sometimes. In a world where we aren’t as patient and where we are bothered by phone conversations, maybe Justin is the proof that having one on one communication with a total stranger can still somehow workout in the end, even if the stranger isn’t necessarily human.