Robots can save us from ‘scammers’

These days it seems that virtually every phone call is either spam or a scam — someone is trying to sell you a cheap credit card, Lasik eye surgery or land someplace you can’t find on a map. And you don’t even get the pleasure of real human interaction — the call comes from a robot, who only puts a person on the line once you’ve signaled you’re an easy mark.
Of course there’s a National Do Not Call Registry, but the investigators who operate it can’t keep up with the scale of robocalling — and scammers aren’t worried about breaking the law anyway.
It’s gotten to the point that most of us (this correspondent included) don’t pick up calls from numbers we don’t recognise. And consequently, everyone misses hearing about homeowners association meetings, rescheduled dentist appointments, and/or Nobel prizes.
But maybe Google is going to change that. Last week, the company announced Google Call Screening, a new feature on the company’s Pixel phones, which can pick up calls from unknown numbers and ask questions so you can figure out whether you actually want to speak with the caller. It’s not yet clear how well the technology will work. But even just as a glimpse of things to come, it’s pretty exciting.
Google’s antispam bot will save you from the spam bot! The screening bot will verbally engage the spam robocall; you can glance at a screen readout of their exchange in amusement if you want to, or just ignore it.
Of course, sometimes one of your friends or family members will get a new cell phone, and they’ll have to chat with your robot before getting to talk with you. But at least eventually they will get to talk with you — which might not happen at all in today’s equilibrium, where you just ignore unknown numbers.
Answering robots will be even more valuable when they get good enough to identify non-spam callers and put them through directly. But maybe most intriguing is the potential for antispam robots to turn the tables on the spammers. If enough people have robots screening their calls, then robospammers might find it hard to get through to real humans — dealing with the roboscreeners will take up much of their time.
Perhaps one day the roboscreeners might even be designed to talk to the robospam bots and convince them to put their human operators on the line. That would waste the scammers’ time. Even if each operator only spends a second or two talking with each screening robot, those seconds would add up — perhaps eventually raising costs enough to put pressure on the spam business itself. And if this killed the phone scam business model, would anyone mourn?
So despite the many concerns artificial intelligence raises for society, here’s one instance, at least, in which I think I’m ready to embrace our robot overlords.

Scott Duke Kominers is the MBA Class of 1960 Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and a faculty affiliate of the Harvard Department of Economics

. Previously, he was a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows and the inaugural research scholar at the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics at the University of Chicago

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