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Jessie Raymond: Call me, maybe — but keep it real

One of the downsides of us still having a landline — besides all the young people thinking we’re geezers — is that pretty much the only calls we get on it are from telemarketers.
Last week, I got one that really threw me. The caller said she was from the Cancer Is Really Awful Foundation or something, one of those vaguely real-sounding organizations that either save millions of lives or are shams run out of abandoned warehouses. You never can tell.
I was especially suspicious with this one because the caller’s voice was far too lovely to be that of a telemarketer. I’m talking professional National Geographic documentary narrator lovely, with precise pronunciation and honeyed tones. She sounded like a recording.
And then, as if knowing she sounded like a recording, she threw in an “um.” Yes, real human beings say “um” like, um, all the time. But her speech was so measured in every other way that the “um” sounded oddly intentional.
I realized I might be talking to a robot.
Seriously. A while ago, I read an article about this new thing: Robot telemarketers who are nearly impossible to distinguish from real people. (Maybe this is what Siri does to earn money on the side.)
As I recall, the writer of the article finally tripped up the robot by asking if she could spell “cat.” Her chipper response — “No, but I can have you talk to my supervisor” — gave her away. Was I talking to such an impostor?
I listened with skepticism to her mellifluous spiel until she got to the asking-for-money part. I politely declined (hey, I’m nice to telemarketers; it’s a character flaw). But instead of pushing back, she paused. For several seconds.
Something was up.
Maybe she was a real woman, taking a moment to lament that she — a college graduate, for Pete’s sake — never dreamed she’d still be living at home at her age, working as a drone in a vast hive of call-center cubicles, harassing hundreds of people a night for a dubious cause instead of following her dream of doing voice-overs for Dove chocolate commercials.
Or maybe she was a robot.
Before I could decide, she started talking again in her smooth voice, unfazed by my rejection — either because she was numb, having given up all hope of a fulfilling career or any meaningful relationships at this point in her life; or, more likely, because she wasn’t actually alive and therefore had no feelings.
My certainty of the latter grew so strong that in the middle of her “just-a-small-donation” blather, I started talking over her.
“You’re not even a person,” I said.
“— make a difference in the lives of so many —” she continued.
“Ugh,” I said, positive now. “I can’t believe I’m talking to a computer.”
I snorted and was about to end the call when she stopped, laughing awkwardly, and said, “Oh, no, does my voice sound that bad?”
I yanked the phone away from my ear and gaped at it in disbelief, whispering, “What the … ?” (Not really.)
Really, I said, “Augh! I am so sorry!” and hung up.
How awful. This poor woman was just trying to get through another soul-sucking night in a dead-end job, and I had called her “not even a person.” It was a hateful thing to say.
Um, unless she was a robot.
I turned to Google for help, and there it was: a December 2013 New York Times article, plus several others, explaining that yes, robot telemarketers exist. Except they aren’t actually robots.
The things they say aren’t words generated by a computer; they’re complete lines recorded in advance by real actors. An operator, who might be juggling several calls at once, chooses lines from a long list of these recorded phrases, deciding what to “say” based on the individual conversation.
According to the article, among the canned responses to anyone who dared to suggest that the voice was not a real person were “I assure you, I’m a real person” and — get this — “Oh, no, does my voice sound that bad?”
I was vindicated.
Ever since that experience, though, I don’t fully trust that anyone I speak to on the landline is real. Not that I’m weird about it; I mean, you can still call me on the home phone and I’ll pick up.
Just don’t get all offended if, five or 10 minutes into our conversation, I ask you to spell “cat.”

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