Robots Vs Robocalls

Robots pitching politics, charities, sales, surveys, and scams of every stripe and in every tongue. Increasingly that's the voice on the other end of a global citizen's next incoming telephone call.

Robots pitching politics, charities, sales, surveys, and scams of every stripe and in every tongue. Increasingly that’s the voice on the other end of a global citizen’s next incoming telephone call.

And it seems no one is safe from the robocall epidemic. Last week while speaking at the Economic Club in Washington, DC, the CEO of the world’s largest phone company AT&T Randall Stephenson was forced to stab “Decline Call” on his bleeping Apple Watch. “I’m getting a robocall,” he laughed regarding the interruption, “It’s literally a robocall!”

Often used in telemarketing campaigns, the robots behind these calls are not terribly sophisticated or interested in conversation — the computerized autodialer just waits for someone to answer so it can rattle off its pre-recorded message.

US citizens received more that 26 billion robocalls last year, a 46 percent increase over 2017 according to a Washington Post report. US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulators are under increasing pressure from lawmakers and consumers to deal with the onslaught, but the problem only appears to be getting worse.

Robocalls are also bombarding consumers in China. The country’s annual 315 Consumer Rights Day show is a two-hour evening gala on state broadcaster CCTV. This month, the show named and shamed firms such as Shenzhen Zhongkezhilian Information Technology and iFlytek-invested Yige Technology for selling AI technologies to companies that use robocalls for sales solicitation. According to the show’s investigation, each robot can complete up to 1000 calls every 8 hours, several times the ceiling for a human telemarketer. The self-described “leading AI company in Northwestern provinces” Yilong Xinke Technology claims it has dialed out some 4 billion robocalls.

Another concerning trend is that robocall technologies are improving. For example, a human can generally tell the difference between a pre-recorded message and a human sales representative pitching a promotion. However some robocalls are now using natural language processing and personalized audio messages to simulate an actual human phone call. AI-backed text-to-speech technology applied to sales solicitation enables the robocall to simulate a back-and-forth conversation and make real-time adjustments to follow-up questions based on keywords, context, etc., making human-robot differentiation more difficult.

Might robots be the best weapon against robocalls? Says Alibaba AI Labs Researcher and Senior Director Zaiqing Nie: “I receive sales calls all the time, and it has come to the point that it annoys me, especially when it interrupts my meetings. I thought to myself: Can you technically solve this problem?” The result was an Alibaba application called Erha, which uses an AI-backed voice bot to field sales calls. In a demo call recording a random human telemarketer delivers a complete sales pitch to Erha, unaware they are dealing with a bot.

In the their paper CoChat: Enabling Bot and Human Collaboration for Task Completion, Nie and other researchers from Beihang University and Alibaba AI Lab introduced CoChat, a dialog management framework that can directly interact with users and be further improved via reinforcement learning. The paper was accepted to AAAI 2018.

As amusing as it may be to fool robocalls into thinking they are communicating with humans, the technique does not actually reduce such calls’ frequency. Broader attempts at this goal include the US government’s Do Not Call list, which lets people register their phone number as an “easy way to reduce the telemarketing calls you get.” However, as with a similar scheme in Canada, the government sells this registry information, and critics claim that registering can actually increase the number of robocalls received.

Google meanwhile has added a call-vetting feature on Pixel 3 smartphones. Users can tap “Call Screen” to answer a call from an unrecognized number with a recorded message that asks why they’re calling. On-device speech recognition transcribes and displays the response. Creative but a bit clunky and time-consuming, will this prove yet another futile attempt to stop the robocall flood?

Journalist: Fangyu Cai | Editor: Michael Sarazen

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