Artificial Unintelligence

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on October 04, 2019

The landline rings. “Hello?” I say. The voice at the other end sounds metallic: A female robot with a cartoonish Southern drawl. “Ha-lllee-ow?-I’m-calling-from...” My mind switches off, as it always does when I hear the name of anything even remotely official. But I register “health services” and “survey”. So I don’t immediately end the call.

“Your-number-was-randomly-selected...” I still can’t tell whether this is some sort of scam or official enough to continue answering. Or even whether it’s a robot or a woman at the other end. Robotic calls have become smart enough that their pauses sound quite human and the recorded responses are quite natural. Anyway. I make it past the first few questions, concerning the composition of the household. Then she says the questionnaire involves the oldest male in the house. I say, “Okay, I’ll call him.”

With my hand cupped around the mouthpiece I call out to Bins. “It’s the Health Services,” I say to him. “They’re doing some sort of survey. They want to talk to the oldest male in the house. It might be a robot.” Then, before he can protest, I hand him the phone.

“Allo?” he says, turning on his French accent at gale force. “I am ze oldest male. Also, ze ONLY male in ze ‘ouse. What is it you want?” Of course, his French accent is watered down with Tamil flourishes because he grew up in Pondicherry. And it only manifests itself on special occasions, such as when he’s talking to a stranger on the phone. “Sorry! Can you repeat zat pliss?” Then he turns to me, his hand on the mouthpiece. “Are you sure it is a robot?” I shrug and shake my head. “I don’t know!” I say. “I also don’t know if it’s a scam. But they’ve not asked me to buy anything. So it’s hard to tell.”

Before I can stop him, he returns to the phone. “Allo. Madame, are you a ‘uman or a robot?” He has to repeat himself a couple of times because now the robot cannot understand his accent. “Ahh! Okay, you are living person. Good. That is better. We can understand each other now. So. What is it you need to know?” A look of intense concentration crosses his face. “You want to know my age and birthdate? Are you sure? Because that is quite a privileged information. In my culture, we do not exchange these details over the phone.” He is looking across at me now, crossing his eyes and twirling his forefinger near his forehead.

He puts the phone on speaker so I can hear the nasal tones of the unfortunate Ms Robot. “Ah’m sawree Sir,” she says. “Are yew refusin’ to answer this surrrvayyyy?” Bins is nodding. “It gives me great sadness, Madame! But yes. I am refusing,” he says. “Thank you for your patience. Au revoir!” He puts the phone down with a grin. “These robots,” he says in his normal accent now, “are crazy!”

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

Published on October 04, 2019

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