OK Google, Here’s Another One…

Having established that there’s a real, valuable use case for Google’s phone-call-making AI (making outgoing calls which have to be routed via complex menus, lengthy queues, or security gatekeepers) I got thinking.

When I was in my early 20s and worked in a real office with doors and a bit of peace and quiet, I had access to a much valued colleague who’s function has almost entirely disappeared from modern life, unless you are enormously rich and powerful. She was called "a secretary".

One of the secretary’s functions was handling incoming phone calls: blocking the nuisances, re-routing the misdirected, taking understandable messages if I was not available, or putting the caller through with a clear announcement if I was. Where "a secretary" scored enormously over "a telephonist" was in knowing a bit about my business and me personally and being able to make some decisions on her (it was usually a her) own. She could also recognise regular accepted callers by their voice and deal with them much more quickly than strangers.

I’d like a computer which can do that.

Now this is definitely a step harder than just placing outgoing calls, but only a step. We don’t have to create a full-blown JARVIS (Iron Man’s AI butler) to get a lot of value.

Recognising known contacts by their voiceprint and incoming line details should be pretty straightforward, and it should be easy to make the list manageable, adding rules about how to deal with different people at different times. Taking messages can be a hybrid of two technologies. Because the caller is talking to a computer the call audio can be recorded, but the automated secretary could run through a simple script to get a direct call-back number ("now you are sure that’s direct and he’s not going to have to go through some horrible menu to get back to you"), spell out the caller’s name and company if it’s not recognised, and get an identifying account number or similar so I can verify the call’s veracity and quickly get my case recognised on call back. These could all be popped into an email or text to me, so I can see them written down rather than having to listen to them and write them down myself.

Those capabilities alone would get rid of a lot of nuisance callers. Scammers who want to offer to move my money to their own accounts are not going to want to leave verifiable contact details, or will not be able to provide valid authentication. Sales calls are a bit different. Most "spam" callers don’t waste their time with answering machines, so if we make the AI secretary recognisable as such that will get rid of most. Any who are really persistent can then be recognised by "trigger" words, such as "PPI", or "double glazing", or "the security department of Microsoft Windows" (yeah, right), plus non-verbal cues like the double-ring of a connection from Asia, or the chattering background in an Indian call centre, just like I do it. That would be a really powerful application of machine learning technology. I could choose how my secretary deals with identified nuisance callers: just hang up, choose a random insult from a list and hang up, keep them talking until they get bored, or redirect the call to an 0898 number where I’m sure the young ladies will be happy to listen to them all day, for a fee.

While we’re at it, let’s make the voice and personality programmable. I had Joanna Lumley’s voice (Purdey rather than Patsy) on my satnav for a while, and that would tick a lot of boxes for me, as a 50-something male. But I can also see the charm of recreating some famous fictional assistants: JARVIS, or how about Chris Hemsworth’s character from Ghostbusters 3, ladies?

OK Google. How about this?

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