You may think you are talking to a salesperson - but actually, it's a robot that can mimic human vocal tones, emotions and even dialects.
Artificial intelligence (AI) technology has improved so much that it's being used by some Chinese companies to make sales calls using robots.
If you get such a call, you may hear what sounds like a woman, asking if you need a loan. If you say yes, she will likely provide the information you want. But even if you get angry and yell at her, she'll stay calm and end the call politely. You probably wouldn't even realize that "she" was a robot.
"There are two AI-related technologies involved in this process - natural language understanding and voice recognition," Liu Dingding, a Beijing-based industry analyst, said.
The former allows a robot to analyze your question and search its database for answers that match the key words in the question. The latter allows the robot to understand you, even if you speak with an accent, he said.
The robot can use dialects because its conversational vocabulary has been recorded from the speech of actual people. However, there are limitations - a robot might comprehend frequently used dialects such as that used in Southwest China's Sichuan Province, but it might not understand more obscure ones, Liu added.
Service industries are keen to use robots in this manner. The 12321 Internet Obscene and Trash Information Reporting Center established by the Internet Society of China received 216,000 complaints on annoying sales calls from October to December. Loans, securities and real estate promotions were among the top complaints.
AI-powered sales calls are cost-efficient. The robots can make 1,000 to 1,500 phone calls per day, doing the work of a 40-person sales team at the cost of one person, according to an article published on qq.com.
"You need to buy a cellphone SIM card and mail it to us. The card will be put into our equipment, and all the calls will be made using this number," a customer service person at a technology company in Dongguan, South China's Guangdong Province, on e-commerce platform taobao.com told Global Times.
The company charges 800 yuan ($120) a month for a package of services, including forming a database, building a vocabulary, drawing up dialogues and other technical support.
"The AI will select customers who are interested and refer them to you," the person explained.
Technology is neutral. It's not only used in making perhaps-unwanted sales calls, it's also prevalent among online food ordering and other customer services in China, said Liu.
"The technology is already mature in China on that front."