Our best weapon against AI is humor

My day job revolves around health insurance and, because of HIPPA regulations, the office has landlines. We can’t do VOIP because it’s not as secure. The theater I work at some evenings uses nothing but VOIP. I’m sure that the main consequence of this is that the theater never gets robo or sales calls, while the office gets them constantly.

Fortunately, I have absolutely no obligation to be nice to robo-callers or even to listen to their pitches. I’ve hung up on them in mid-sentence. To make it more confusing for them, I’ve hung up in the middle of my sentence. Sometimes, if they’re trying to pitch a service that the boss already has and I know that he did meticulous research before he obtained it or has a personal relationship with the provider, I’ll respond with a terse, “Thanks, but we’re happy with what we have,” and then hang up.

The fun ones are when we get calls trying to sell Medicare insurance. They start out just talking about Medicare Supplement plans, and those are perfectly legal to advertise. Why? Because no matter the provider, each particular plan has the same premium, determined by age, and has the same basic benefits.

These are the plans that cover deductibles, copays, and coinsurance not covered by other plans or Medicare itself. Where they differ is in the extras they toss on. Some of them provide gym benefits, others provide personal emergency systems — i.e. the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” necklace, others provide free over-the-counter stuff, like vitamins and cold remedies, by mail. It’s a mix-and-match, and what it’s really doing is providing people to decide what they prefer among plans that are otherwise identical.

So far, so good. If it’s a slow day and I get one of these calls, I will always push the button for more info, which connects me to a live operator. This is where it gets fun, because it is illegal to cold-call someone to try to sell them Medicare Advantage or Medicare Prescription Drug Plans.

Don’t worry if you don’t know what all those terms mean. I didn’t either six months ago. The gist of it is that selling these in the same way is illegal because their costs and coverages vary wildly, and it all depends upon the person being insured, and which medications they’re taking.

For somebody taking no drugs or with one or two common and cheap generics, Coverage X may only cost $13 a month. For someone with a lot of prescriptions, especially if one or more only come in a brand instead of a generic, Coverage X may cost hundreds or thousands of dollars a year. And for each of them, the price of Coverage X, Coverage Y, and Coverage Z may also vary widely, also depending on whether they have a preferred pharmacy or not, and whether that pharmacy is in or out of network for the provider.

In other words… this is something people need to discuss with a professional who can look at their specific needs, analyze the options, and give the best and cheapest advice. That cold caller is probably only calling for a small number of (or even only one) providers, so they don’t care what your situation is going to cost. They only want to get you to buy what you’re selling.

And that is a big part of why these kinds of calls are so illegal.

Now, when I get a person doing one of these calls on the line, they will usually launch into a fast-talking spiel about how they can save me and my family money on all of our health insurance needs, including Medicare Advantage or Drug Plans, and what would I like to sign up for today?

My reply is always, “Hey, you sell Medicare insurance, too? So do we. My boss is an insurance broker.”

Analogy time: This would be the equivalent of somebody robo-dialing in order to hire a hitman to take out a rival, giving the fully incriminating pitch to whomever answers, and then finding out they’d called the FBI.

When I say this, I can hear the sudden confusion in the silence and the unstated “Oh, shit.” It takes a second or two, but then I hear them hang up on me, and that is the Holy Grail of dealing with these unethical idiots: making them end the call.

Some of them must be paying attention, though, because the other day I got one of these calls during a slow late afternoon, hit 1 to talk to a rep and then instead of immediately being put through, got some hold music, and then after about ten seconds, the call disconnected.

So, other Holy Grail. I think I actually got our office number blocked by a spamming, illegal robo-caller. That’s really satisfying.

However, there’s another trend in these robo-calls that’s somewhat more disturbing on a couple of fronts. First is that it could actually put people out of jobs. And yes, while we all hate these kinds of calls, I still get that for some people, these jobs are their tenuous lifelines. I blame the companies behind them, not the people who have no options other than to work for them.

Second is that this trend is using AI, and it’s getting a lot better. When you get a call that has a voice announcement or is reading off a recorded message, it’s pretty obvious what it is. Beyond the robotic cadence or the message outright stating that it’s a recording, there’s also just a huge difference in sound quality between a recording or digital audio and a live speaker.

Why is this? Simple. Digital or analog audio goes direct through an input line to the headset speaker in your phone. Spoken voice has to take the extra step or traversing a few millimeters of open air between the speaker’s mouth and their microphone, and this creates a completely different quality. You don’t even have to be an audiophile to pick up on it. It’s something we just automatically sense. “Recording” and “Real Person” appear as different from each other as “Mannequin” and “Human Being.”

But then they tweaked the technology, and now I’ve met a couple of AI robo-callers that were obviously filtered to sound like real people with that atmospheric connection. I don’t doubt that this is now a trivial process to add via computer, although to be honest, it could be done really low-tech and in cheap analog by setting up a speaker playing the voice next to a handset picking it up. Either way… these couple of calls got me at first.

Call number one, it was easy to spot after the initial two exchanges, because the voice launched into the uninterruptable spiel so, despite the sound quality, I got it and hung up.

The second and, so far, last time, it was a bit harder. The very human sounding voice started out with, “Hello, how are you today?” I replied, “Fine, and you?” It replied. “Great, thanks for asking. Can I ask you some questions about your family’s shopping habits?” “Sure,” I said, waiting for an opportunity to mess with them, but then also noticed that there seemed to be slightly too long of a pause between their question and my response. Also, every response started with a filler word. And the next response nailed it for me.

“That’s great. Are you responsible for the grocery shopping in your household.”

Trivial thing, but just like we can detect by hearing whether a voice is recorded or on the phone, our brains are also wired to detect whether we’re talking to a human, and this was the point that the bot failed the Turing Test. The responses were a bit mechanical and not keying into my tone at all. So I decided to give it a real test and replied, “I only pay for it, but everyone else decides what they want.”

The pause was slightly longer, and then came the reply, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Can you repeat that?” Of course, the human response would have been a laugh at a thing that AI hasn’t mastered yet: A joke.

Bingo, busted bot. So lots of points for the realism of the voice, delivery, and sound quality, but there’s still a long way to go on making it believable, and this is a very, very good thing, indeed. If you think it’s a bot, engage it with non-sequiturs and humor, and see how fast it falls apart.


Image: Alan Turing Memotial by Bernt Rostad, (cc BY 2.0).

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