More lessons in human-computer team-ups

"I don't know if you know anything about Six Sigma," Coombs asked rhetorically. "a human being is at best a 2-sigma machine. Which means that humans get things right 92 to 93 percent of the time."


From Alexis Madrigal's piece on telemarketing “robots.” It turns out the robotic Samantha West who telephoned a Time reporter was a telemarketer choosing pre-recorded audio clips from a sound board using call assist software that is increasingly popular in the industry.

Madrigal raises two other great points in his investigation of this industry that Samantha West brought into the limelight.

"The impact on the people was really dramatic. It was one of the things we didn't expect," Bills told me. "In outbound sales, it knocked our turnover from 400 percent a year to 135 to 140 percent. And it dramatically changed the characteristics of employing people."

To be clear, 140 percent turnover is about on par with the fast-food industry. The paragons of employee retention keep their numbers in the single digits. These are still hard jobs. 

But maybe this technology makes it a little bit easier. 

"It creates detachment," Bills said. "What we see is that our employees, when they have a successful outcome of the call, they take pride in operating the system effectively. When it doesn't work, they say, 'Ahhh that wasn't me.' It doesn't beat people up in the same way."

The machine absorbs some of the "emotional wear and tear" that comes with the job. CallAssistant can even employ people full time because the "shift fatigue" that hits other outbound telemarketing firms doesn't set in in quite the same way. 

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Though no one quite puts it this way, the number-one selling point for the soundboard technology is obvious to Filipino telemarketers: Americans' xenophobia. We want to hear from people who sound just like us. 


Anyone who's ever worked in telemarketing (I've made fundraising calls in college and for the Obama campaign) knows you already work off a script, so it's entirely shocking that the industry would transition to using pre-recorded audio clips.

One thing I thought when watching the Spike Jonze movie Her is how humans have a finite amount of love and attention to give and how computers can increase the supply in the world by a near infinite degree. For humans to accept it, though, we have to shift our conception of the definition of love. How much do you value someone's love because you know it's finite and they've chosen to give that precious resource to you? It sounds selfish but it may be wired in our DNA. [SPOILER ALERT for those of who haven't seen Her, skip the rest of this paragraph]. When Joaquin Phoenix's Theodore finds out his operating system Samantha is carrying on love affairs with hundreds of others, he doesn't rejoice at the amazing leverage and increased supply of love in the world, he reacts like a jealous lover, to no human's surprise. An economist might be disheartened, though.

I'm reminded of Joe Pantoliano in The Matrix: “You know, I know this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy, and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realise? Ignorance is bliss.”