You, Robot

Asking for me by name, the caller identified herself as “Barney.” And who are you with, Barney? No one, just Barney, she replied, going silent. My assistant and right hand, a young woman who goes by the name of Seed, repeated the question just to be sure she had heard correctly and got the same response. Standoff. Faced with this act of stonewalling Seed gave up and tossed the ball into my court. Shrugging her shoulders and holding the phone toward me as though for inspection, she signaled that she needed an official ruling. Take or don’t take?

When you are in business for any length of time, you become a target for all manner of operators seeking your time or money. Mostly your money. Dealing with them properly requires a certain artfulness. You could, in theory, simply tell all of them to take a flying leap. But that leaves a sour taste and debases, in a small way, both caller and callee. It is also a good way to develop a bad reputation, and to generate–if you believe in such a thing–bad karma.

If you are any good you develop a palette of techniques for dealing with cold-callers, and are able to shape each response as the occasion requires, quickly but nicely getting most of them off the phone, but cultivating with just the right amount of enthusiasm the occasional potentially worthwhile prospect. Over the years I have gotten very, very good at this. Seed is every bit as good as I am, if not better, and deftly sorts the wheat from the chaff with crisp, feminine efficiency. But this opponent had her bollixed.

Decision time. Is it a sales call or a potential supplier? a business prospect or just another tire kicker? In such moments it often comes down to little things. Sometimes I will decide to take a call simply to have a momentary diversion. If, for example, the person on the other end sounds cute I might decide to treat the call as an opportunity to do a little harmless flirting. Mildly intrigued by the prospect of talking to a woman with an old guy’s name, I made an executive decision and indicated that I would take the call. Seed handed the phone over and I said, in my best and most professional voice, “Can I help you?”

In a Midwestern-accented voice that reminded me instantly of Sarah Palin, Barney greeted me warmly: “How’s the hardest workin’ guy in business?” Her voice oozed familiarity. I was momentarily flummoxed. Do I know you? I thought. That question was soon answered for me, when after some introductory pleasantries Barney launched into what sounded an awful lot like the prelude to a sales presentation. It was a very smooth launch, though, and Barney was in no hurry to tip her hand. So I continued to hold out the faint hope that this might yet turn out to be a fruitful interaction.

After only a few moments of monologue it became fairly obvious that Barney was, in fact, working up to a pitch, though the exact nature of whatever she was selling had not yet become apparent. I wasn’t having much luck in the flirting department, either. My little bon mots were all met with awkward silence as Barney continued to stick doggedly to the script, clearly in no mood to play. So I began to tune her out, offering just enough attention that I would be able to react at the right moment with a polite “Thanks but no thanks.” When out of the corner of my ear I heard her say something about “am 1300”–talk radio–I knew for sure, and mentally prepared to bail.

Barney was determined to hold the floor, though, and resisted all attempts to distract her from her mission. At some point another call came in, and I told Barney I would have to take it. But Barney was in the zone, and kept right on talking. So I tried another way: Barney, I have another caller.  Still no reaction. I felt a quick flush of irritation. Sharpening my voice, I curtly declared that I was putting her on hold. This seemed to get Barney’s attention and she stopped in mid-utterance with such suddenness that it was as though the power to her voice had been cut. After a pause she came back with something like, “OK I’ll be right here.” But there was something off about her intonation, as though this sentence held no memory whatsoever of the previous ones.

The other caller turned out to be a repeat customer who needed help with an issue he was having, so I spent a little time with him, troubleshooting. Barney can wait, I thought. After four or five minutes I switched back over and was greeted with the sound of Barney schmoozing no one in particular, which seemed kind of odd. Most sales call originate in call centers. You can tell because you clearly hear many other voices in the background. But if Barney was in a call center she must have had the place to herself, because in place of the usual background cacophony of sales agents working it, there was only silence. At the sound of my voice, Barney stopped and repeated her original introduction, syllable for syllable, inflection for inflection, as though we were starting all over again: “Hey how’s the hardest workin’ guy in business?” This was getting weird.

After a moment, Barney shifted gears and jumped, finally, into the sales pitch. School was going to be out in a few months, and all those kids suddenly milling about were a “magnet” for child abductors, who, as everyone knows, are everywhere. The concerned citizens at Computer Medic were being offered the chance to make a difference by reminding everyone of this clear and present danger with a public service announcement. For a fee, of course.

At this turn of events, my mood abruptly changed. I had three serious problems with what Barney was proposing. First of all, I had absolutely no interest in any radio advertisement of any kind because I know from experience that they are a waste of money. Second, I had no interest whatsoever in being associated in any way with talk radio, or as I call it “shout radio,” because everything about it offends me. It is a form of what used to be called yellow journalism, an industry of agitation populated by overpaid professional blowhards who cynically gin up synthetic outrage amongst the gullible, day in and day out, for the sake of ratings and profits. Third, I detest–that is not too strong a word–the world view that embraces the message Barney would have me deliver: that danger is everywhere, that no child is safe, that no one can be trusted, and that we must always be vigilant. It’s complete bullshit, has absolutely no basis in fact, and makes everyone needlessly paranoid and fearful. It’s one of the reasons our society is such a mess and so many kids are are, too. It’s probably the main reason so many Americans live in gated communities. Because of this completely bogus fear, children are, by and large, no longer allowed to walk to school alone. Or play outside alone. Or do anything whatsoever out of the sight of their parents, who hover like surveillance drones, monitoring their every scripted move.

It was time to pull the plug on this little charade. Barney had a pretty good head of team built up by now but I didn’t care. I interrupted her with the bad news, or rather tried to. She ignored the interjection and kept right on talking, not missing a beat, oblivious. Annoyed, I took it up a notch, allowing impatience to creep into my voice, again with no effect. Suddenly it began to dawn on me that I had been duped. Barney wasn’t real. “She” was a robot, a pseudo-friendly synthetic voice fronting an algorithm.

I had to confirm this, of course, so I asked directly: “Barney, are you a robot?” Now this is a pretty personal question that would normally generate a quick and unambiguous reply. From a human, that is. But Barney was unmoved. I tried a couple more times in slightly different ways with the same result. Barney was busted. My annoyance evaporated, and I decided to have fun with it. I began singing: Barney’s a robot, Barney’s a robot, nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah, as Barney yammered on, a digital contrivance blindly obeying lines of code. Finally turning serious, I said something like, “I know you can’t hear me, but I absolutely hate what you are doing and wouldn’t touch your proposal with a BORROWED ten-foot pole.” And then I hung up.

I felt a little sheepish at being suckered so completely. At the same time it was impossible not to feel at least a twinge of admiration for the sophisticated production to which Seed and I had just been subjected. Those guys are good, I thought.

And getting better all the time. The conclusion is inescapable that in a few years you won’t be able to tell the difference between a person and a computer. Some people are unruffled by this, but to me it sounds a lot like Blade Runner. And this is not a good thing.

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