A reporter at TIME magazine recently got a phone call from a woman named Samantha West who wanted to talk about health insurance. When the reporter asked her if she was a robot, she laughed and said, "I am a real person, can you hear me okay?"
TIME Washington bureau chief Michael Scherer got the initial call from Samantha on his cell phone, and although she sounded somewhat like a real person who wanted to talk about healthcare, he quickly deduced that she was definitely a robot.
Scherer and his colleagues called her number back multiple times and made some recordings — she can sort of carry on a real conversation, and parts of it are convincing — she laughs naturally and has a few different responses to the word "robot."
But then, according to TIME:
She failed several other tests. When asked “What vegetable is found in tomato soup?” she said she did not understand the question. When asked multiple times what day of the week it was yesterday, she complained repeatedly of a bad connection
TIME published the robocaller's phone number, and eventually the number just began diverting to busy signals. Before it did, they tracked down a human, who said he was Bruce Martin of Premier Health Plans, Inc. He apparently denied Samantha being connected to the company, and although he initially asked TIME to advertise his service within the article, his website was quickly taken offline.
But that's not the most interesting part.
One Atlantic reporter tried to track down the technology used. Alexis Madrigal spoke with interactive voice companies who all said only one program might be capable of Samantha's range of conversation. Madrigal ultimately concluded that the technology doesn't really exist right now for a robot to casually chat with callers — it's more of a Ferris Bueller setup.
His conclusion is that these calls might be made by people unfamiliar with English or with accents who have pre-recorded responses on a soundboard that they play during the call. But it's not certain — he too was rebuffed by the only human voice to answer Samantha's number.
[image via Shutterstock]