Was That Robotic Telemarketer Actually a Lifelike Soundboard?

By Wesley Fenlon

A human operator was likely behind the voice of Samantha West, who sounded very much like a robot.

Is Samantha West a robot? If you haven't heard of Samantha West, she's the owner of the bubbly voice that recently called TIME Washington Bureau Chief Michael Scherer's cell phone. She was selling cheap health insurance. But despite the very human inflections in her voice, her questions and responses sounded canned. When Scherer asked Samantha "What vegetable is found in tomato soup," she couldn't answer.

TIME did some reporting, calling Samantha's number back, and confirmed she was a robot, responding with the same pleasant lines, the same pleasant laugh, and the same insistence "I am a real person." She definitely wasn't. But is Samantha West actually a robot? The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal had a different theory.

"I wondered: where could I buy such an interactive voicebot?" he writes. "This query led me down a strange rabbit hole. And along the way, I discovered that Samantha West may be something even stranger than a telemarketing robot. Samantha West may be a human sitting in a foreign call center playing recorded North American English through a soundboard."

The Mechanical Turk.

Madrigal decided to look for a way to buy a robot like Samantha West, if such a thing exists. If Samantha is a voicebot, he reasons, we'd be getting way more calls like this way more often, because as soon as a new, efficient type of spam is possible, it's widely used. With some smart Googling he landed on the phrase Outbound IVR, or interactive voice response. He also discovered outbound IVR is usually pretty simple--the kind of robotic voice that calls you up and tells you you have an appointment, but not one that can hold a whole conversation.

After talking to some sources in the outbound IVR business, the conclusion seemed obvious: Samantha West was not a robot. She was too fast, and too good at responding correctly, even with a limited dialogue set. Check out Madrigal's full article for a great quote section from someone in the industry, who lays out exactly why Samantha couldn't be a robot.

Photo credit: Flickr user spikenzie via Creative Commons

So Samantha West isn't a person, but she's not a robot, either. What is she? The most logical answer: She's both. Samantha West is likely a person in a foreign country, or someone with a foreign accent, using a soundboard with pre-recorded responses to interact with customers. They understand English well enough to process what people are saying more quickly than a machine could, but they respond with the pre-recorded voice because most Americans will likely respond more positively to the recorded voice than one with a strong accent.

And, in many situations, the soundboard will be good enough. They won't always need to deviate from the script. It's a more logical explanation, and perhaps a bit sad, since it implies there's a higher success rate selling insurance with a canned voice than a real person speaking with an accent. It's also a little disappointing, because it means Samantha West almost certainly isn't a robot. And how cool--if scary--would that have been?