February 24, 2018

Bots Talking To Bots


This past fall I got so sick of getting innumerable, annoying robo calls that I downloaded the app YouMail, which dealt with the problem perfectly.

The YouMail app is free for handling up to 20 calls a month. You download the app, allow it access to your Contacts and it answers any call that you don’t pick up on. So when my phone rings, if there is no name in my contacts that appears on my iPhone screen and if I don’t recognize the number, I don’t answer the call, the YouMail bot answers it and sends me both an email and a text that I got a call. I can read the text of the call or listen to it if I want to. Cool.

If someone in my Contacts calls and I don’t answer my phone, YouMail answers it by intoning robotically, “Hello, Julia…Charles…is not available. Please leave a message.” I like having the greeting personalized, even though it’s obviously a bot. For those calls from numbers not in my Contacts, the message is simply, “Charles is not available. Please leave a message.”

Just before Christmas I got a call from an interest-rate scam (so labeled by YouMail). Scammers rarely leave a message, but this one did. The scam bot replied to my YouMail bot by leaving a mechanical message that I had just two days to reply to get a special low-interest-rate deal. I loved it – bots talking to bots. Untouched by human hands, voices or thoughts.

I guess because I was bored – the semester in which I teach two graduate courses was over – and because I was avoiding helping my wife put up Christmas decorations (the avoidance is a yearly ritual), I opened the YouMail scam message and listened to it and guffawed. The voice on the scam bot was the same voice, or one uncannily similar, as the one on the YouMail. Bots talking to bots in the same voice – no emotion, mechanical, totally uncaring, totally robotic.

So are the bots communicating? According to classic communication theory, for effective communication to occur, there has to be seven elements: a Source, a Channel, a Message, a Receiver, Listening, Understanding, and Feedback. In the bot- to-bot exchange there was a Source (the scam bot), a Channel (phones), a Message (the scam), and a Receiver (the YouMail bot). But did the YouMail technically listen to the message or merely record it? Did the YouMail bot understand the message? No. The YouMail bot could have cared less what the message was even though it recognized that it was a scam.

So was this bot conversation communication? Probably not according to classic communication theory. Was this bot conversation Artificial Intelligence? AI hasn’t really progressed to the point that it’s really intelligent yet.

If the YouMail bot was smart, it would have replied, “You *#?@%# son-of-bitch! How dare you waste my time with a *#?@%# scam!” And if the scam bot was really smart, it would have replied, “Oh, I’m dreadfully sorry for bothering you while you were picking your nose and avoiding helping your wife.”

In other words, AI has not yet mastered communication – real listening and understanding and feedback. Real human beings still have an edge in communicating, in listening, in understanding and in empathetic responses.

Maybe we’ll get to the point in a year or so when AI can effectively communicate – like responding to Donald Trump’s tweets with understanding.