Samantha West, the American telemarketing robot who denies she is a robot, does not live or breath or think for herself. Instead, she functions much like a remote-controlled car, directly operated by a real person working in a call center outside the United States, says a representative of the company who controls her, Premier Health Plans, Inc.
“We’re just contacting people in a way they’re not familiar with,” said John Rasman, a human who works for the company.
Rasman said that Samantha West is not a robot but a computer program used by telemarketers outside of the United States—he would not say where–to allow English speakers with thick non-American accents to sort through leads to find real prospective buyers before passing them off to agents back in the United States.
When Samantha West calls, there is a person on the other end of the line, he said, who is an active participant in the conversation. That the person was limited to communicating through a machine with pre-recorded utterances did not change the fact, he said, that there was another human participating in the conversation.
Last week, when reporters from TIME called Samantha West’s phone number, the conversations definitely did not sound like they were happening between two people. (As of today, TIME employs no robots.)
“Hey are you a robot?” a reporter asked. “No I am a real person. Maybe we have a bad connection,” said the uncanny voice on the other end. “Just say, ‘I’m not a robot.’ Please,” the reporter said. “I’m a real person,” the voice replied. It went on from there.
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The technology had one industry expert stumped.
“I have not experienced anybody within our industry or this association that has done anything like this,” Chris Haerich, a spokesperson for the Professional Association for Customer Engagement, told TIME. (Haerich’s non-profit trade group represents telemarketers, although they don’t like the term.)
Rasman of Premier Health, Inc. said his human agents playing Samantha West’s keys act as brokers for health insurance companies in the U.S. like United Health Care. To get into his company’s system, according to Rasman, you have to enter your contact information into one of the many websites offering health insurance quotes.
The first TIME editor who heard from Samantha West did no such thing.
Haerich said she thought Samantha West—not the advanced artificial-intelligence but the software with pre-recorded statements deployed by telemarketers with non-American accents—fell under the category of “robocall.”
The call likely violated some provisions of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, according to Haerich. The first call to the TIME editor did not include an automated “opt out” mechanism, which is required by law (“Dial 9 to be placed on our do not call list,” for instance, might have done the trick.)
But the peculiar thing about Samantha West isn’t just that she is automated. It’s that she’s so smartly automated that she’s trained to respond to queries about whether or not she is a robot by telling you she’s a human. I asked Haerich if there is a regulation against robots lying to you.
“I don’t…know…that…,” she said. “That’s one I’ve never been asked before. I’ve never been asked that question. Ever.”