Rampant robots

By Kirstin Buick
18 July 2013

Ever occurred to you that those annoying sales callers could be robots?

THEY'RE the calls we all know and loathe, the ones that start with a complete stranger asking: "Hi, and how are you today . . . ?" If you answer them at work they're usually when you're in a potentially career-changing meeting or sweating away as a deadline looms.

And when you do the same at home they're invariably when you're on the toilet, your dog has just dragged something resembling a human hand in from the garden, your cat has just puked all over your brand-new stereo system, or all three.

Of course you know immediately these uber-concerned folk are going to try to sell you something: a date with Julius Malema's cousin, a holiday for two to a non-existent Indian Ocean island, the very karate course that got Chuck Norris started. And you know you should put down the phone immediately. But you don't. You're too well brought up and polite for that so you say "fine thanks" ? and they've got you hooked.

Not that they're skilled anglers or anything. They just plucked your name from a mailing list drifting in cyberspace somewhere and took no trouble to build up an accurate profile of you. That's why they try to sell you gym membership when you're confined to an iron lung, or want to talk about your financial portfolio when you've been living in a cardboard box for three years, or want to discuss car insurance when you've been banned from driving for life after being caught 300 times over the legal alcohol limit . . . that sort of thing.

I tried being rude once. "Well," I said, "if you really want to know how I am today I'll tell you. My wife's just left me, I've got a dread disease, my kids are all tik addicts, my car engine's just blown and, bizarrely, my dog has just run through from the garden carrying something that looks like a human hand . . . "

Pause.

"Oh, that's good. Now I won't take up much of your time. Firstly, do you have a cellphone . . .?

I mean, the best case scenario is these people are phoning from a call centre in China or somewhere and have an understandably limited English vocabulary. It's "hi, and how are you today?" followed by the sales pitch then a cheery "have a nice day" to end. That's the full extent of their training. But I reckon there's something a lot more ominous going on. For one thing, they all sound as Seffrican as pap and wors.

I've toyed with the idea of them being aliens, but why would any race sophisticated enough to travel thousands of light years across the universe choose Seffrica as a destination? No, after careful consideration, I've deduced they're very probably robots, machines programmed in the local vernacular but without the cognitive ability to ad lib when the person they're calling veers from the script.

And if this is the case, then the possibilities are endless for using these machines for all manner of other tasks. They could be utilised as prison warders (actually they're doing that already in South Korea), bank tellers (yes, many would say they already behave like bots) and hospital nurses. We could even develop the world's first robotic rugby coach.

It wouldn't be perfect, of course, because of the aforementioned problems in the logic department. And it could well come up with embarrassing quotes such as "I am going to pull a rat out of the hat"; "There is little difference between winning and losing except you feel better after winning"; or, when the wiring really goes, "We do not want to become a fruit salad . . ."

So, next time you answer one of those hi-how-are-you-today calls, listen carefully for any telltale clicks, whirrs or buzzes. There aren't just robots at most intersections in Seffrica. They've secretly infiltrated a lot more aspects of our lives than we'll ever know, I reckon. Which could well explain why so many of our government ministers make Peter de Villiers sound perfectly logical. Take that Zuma bloke, for instance . . .

- JOHN PHILLIPS

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