Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 09/84 item 02 - scanned

IF A MACHINE PHONES YOU... (column)

Have you ever made a phone call from a public call box in America? If you have and, like me, you've encountered their operators, then you'll know they're a poor substitute for our very own flesh and blood equivalents. Over there a real operator is thrown in as a very last resort. Most of the simpler cock-ups (the sort I make are dealt with by computers programmed to say "local calls must be prefixed by a one" or, "please insert 25 cents". What really gets me is that after a longish call, you put the phone down and it immediately rings to tell you that you now owe a further 35 cents. Try putting the phone down and ignoring it and it will call you again. I've never had the nerve to see how many times it will ring back. After a couple of attempts, I usually cough up.

The reason I mention this is that computer-based call makers are becoming very popular in America. They are used for the obvious redialling which occupies so much of our telephone-using time but, increasingly, they are used to initiate conversations and to record responses. According to a recent article in Computing, a $120,000 machine can be programmed to make 400 calls an hour. This must involve running several telephone lines at a time and being able to handle several replies concurrently. Simpler, microcomputer-based devices can still handle a healthy number of calls.

Some companies simply let the computer call someone, state its purpose and then record a response. Others are used to keep dialling selected numbers until they get a response, then they pass the respondent to a real operator. In some cases the real operators simply asks if they mind having a conversation with the computer. If the person agrees, the operator hands over to the computer which then says something like "We regret to inform you that you currently owe us $20,000, will you be paying this today or tomorrow? " The response is recorded either on tape or digitised and stored on disk from whence it is analysed and the payment, or lack of it, monitored. If the person refuses the operator's invitation to talk to the computer, the account details are passed to the human credit controllers.

So far, I think, we have been relatively unaffected by this development. I hesitate because at least four times a week I am called by someone who says: "Hello, my name is ";NAME$ = LIST$(RNDF(1)*100); " and I have an office in the City of London." You probably get them too, it is a financial consultant or tax consultant very eager to save you money. Or, at least, that's what they claim. I actually believe my callers are real because my rude replies provoke too wide a variety of responses. You can imagine what life would be like if computers were left to trawl for business for these people:

"Hello"; NAME$; "Do you truly want to save on your tax payments? Simply answer "YES' or 'NO'." (Pause).

If you answer "NO" the computer hangs up while a "YES" will put you straight on to the "consultant".

Apparently this sort of cold canvassing by computer has been outlawed in Florida. Good for Florida. Can you imagine if all your local eating houses were programmed to call you around 4pm, just when you are thinking about where to eat or what to cook. "Hi this is your local pizza parlour. We are only ";GRIDREFUS-GRIDREFYOU; "yards away. Simply call us on 12345 and we will have your meal ready by the time you get here. " Ugh. Mind you, I'd rather be called up by a pizza-selling computer than a life insurance machine.

Bringing this theme nearer to our business, how about the magazine advertisement sales people? Their line is pretty consistent, it could easily be tackled by a computer. Even the negotiation is fairly straightforward: series bookings, agency discounts, bleed, colour, spot etc. etc. Imagine the productivity that could be cranked out of these people with a bit of computer assistance. Only the really tedious calls will need to go to them: the computer will be securing business left, right and centre all by itself.

I hate to say this but this development will come to Britain as inevitably as McDonald's did. Once one company starts to gain an edge using these methods, all the others will need to compete on the same basis. Should we follow Florida's lead and act to outlaw this development? If we don't do something then it's quite conceivable that one day we will find our telephones continuously clogged by incoming computerised calls.