How AI-Powered Voice Bots Flooded China’s Telemarketing Industry
Companies are using speech recognition technology to cold-call consumers, but the practice is raising privacy concerns
By Wang Yiwei
ZHEJIANG, East China — We all know the feeling. You receive a call from an unknown number, answer it, and bring your phone to your ear. On the other end, a recorded voice spews out an advertisement. You sigh and irritably hang up.
Like many of us, 35-year-old Yang was used to sales calls like that. But last year, he started receiving a different kind of call that left him more unnerved than annoyed. The voices on the other end of the line sounded like recordings, but they could respond flexibly to his questions in fluent Chinese.
Having worked in artificial intelligence for several years, Yang — who refused to give his full name, citing a potential conflict of interest — says he soon realized that these calls were being made by AI-driven voice bots designed to recognize, interpret, and respond to human speech in natural ways. Chinese voice bots have developed rapidly since 2016, around a year after the State Council — the country’s Cabinet — made AI a key part of “Made in China 2025,” its flagship plan to transition from a labor-intensive manufacturing economy to a high-tech, more service- and consumption-oriented one. But as Yang received more and more calls from uncannily human-sounding bots — sometimes a dozen a day — he began to wonder who was behind them, how they knew his phone number, and how they seemingly knew so much about him. “Some of them even knew my full name. The more I spoke to them, the more calls I got,” he says. “It’s disgusting.”
As Yang’s experience testifies, in China, smart voice technology — the “brains” behind voice bots — has already reached the point at which people struggle to distinguish it from human speakers. Developers frequently claim that bots can replace human call-center personnel, dramatically reducing costs for telemarketing companies and plugging gaps in China’s shrinking labor market. But experts question the technology’s maturity and ownership, while lawyers claim that the current applications of voice bots infringe China’s privacy laws.