The Cold Caller (1)

I was reading something about telephone scams yesterday, and it reminded me I wrote this short story a few years ago on that subject. Perhaps you will find it amusing:

The Cold Caller (part 1 of 3)

‘Hello, Mr Williams?’ I began. ‘My name is David, and I am calling you from the Technical Support department of Windows.’

‘No, you’re not. Your name is Sahil and you are in 142nd Cross Road, Bangalore, on the second floor of the Maheli Building. You have your back to the window, but if you were to turn around you would have an excellent view out over Lal Bagh Tank and the Botanical Gardens.’

There was a very long silence.

‘Hello? Sahil? Are you still there?’

I very softly put down the receiver, as though I were afraid to disturb something dangerous.

I have a first class degree in English from a very good university, but it is still very difficult to get one of the better jobs. There is so much competition. So, like many of my contemporaries, I have ended up working in a call centre. Here we are required to have a degree, and we are required to speak English like a native, so I am well suited to this job.

I don’t really need to know anything about computers although, like most of my educated peers, I actually know quite a lot about them. But there is always a script. We are trained for two weeks, during which time we have to learn our scripts at home, and then for the first week we always have a supervisor close at hand to help us. The pay is okay, although to earn any good money you must make a set number of sales each day.

How do we make our sales? The customer will buy a Download to fix their computer, which is running too slowly.

And how do we get our information? It is a fairly sophisticated process. Let us say that you are on your computer, and that you open an email that purports to be something that it is not. When you do this, you will download a Trojan – a cookie, really – that does no more than monitor things like speeds and C.P.U. usage on your machine. Don’t worry, that is all that it does. We aren’t in the business of infecting machines with viruses and causing damage to anyone. But this cookie will send us information on the efficiency of your computer.

If your machine is obviously running slowly, then we call you. Telephone number and name from your machine when it was originally registered, extracted by the cookie, of course, plus the machine number. A number and name comes up on my screen, and I call.

Our fix will actually speed up the machine a bit – enough for the user to notice, at least.

I had been doing the job for five months, and doing it quite well, when this happened. I admit that I was quite scared by the episode. After I had put the phone down I sat there for a while, staring ahead, but not really seeing anything. After a few minutes, my supervisor came over to ask me if there was a problem, but I just shook my head and said no, I was taking a couple of minutes’ breather, and he went away again. I went and got myself a coffee from the machine, and then I carried on with my work.

I like Bangalore. So much here is new and modern. It is symbolic of the new India. I’ve got no time for the old superstitions, and I hate the filth and poverty. I left all that behind when I moved here. My parents still live in Delhi, in the house that I was brought up in with my brother and my two sisters. It is in a nice area, but all around this area there is ghastly squalor; the streets are piled with mounds of stinking refuse, the gutters run with sewage and the houses are unworthy of the name.

My father has a good job in a bank, which is how he was able to pay for my brother and I to go to university, but otherwise I suppose that he is typical of the old India. Every morning he makes puja, the ritual laid out by thousands of years of practice, praying to Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, for success in his daily undertakings. The flower petals, the bowls, the bell, the incense, the rice…everything has to be just so, otherwise the ceremony will have no meaning.

And this superstition pervades every part of our lives. My parents insist that they will choose a bride for me, as they have already done for my brother. I will have very little say in the matter; at most I can veto their decision if I can show good reason. But the traditions that still have a powerful hold over our society say that she must be of the right caste, of good family, and that our horoscopes must be compatible. And when all of that has been dealt with, she must bring our family a large dowry.

But I have insisted that I will marry the woman who I love, not somebody chosen for me by others. And, indeed, I have already chosen. This woman, my beloved Raveena, is the sister of one of our software engineers. We met when a group of us had lunch during Diwali last year. Her family, like mine, are traditional, but we represent the modern India; she also has a good job, in a telecommunications company, and between us we will have enough to be comfortable and eventually to raise a family. Of course, our hope is that our parents will come to soften a little when they have grandchildren.

At night, I look out at the lights of all the other apartments in my colony, and I imagine the day that I will bring my wife home. There must be a wedding, of course, for even in modern India that is the way. It may be, though, that ours will be a small affair, with simply a few friends and relatives present. We both know that there will be many in both of our families who will refuse to attend. This saddens me, I admit, for I would love a large, traditional, Indian wedding. We Indians do weddings so much better than anyone else.

Parts 2 and 3 to follow

Artificial Intelligence

This is not something that I really know anything about, but the possible dangers of building a machine with Artificial Intelligence were in the news again this morning.

Although he is not the first to do so, the fact that Professor Stephen Hawking has warned that this will inevitably lead to machines coming to dominate humans, and perhaps deciding to enslave or eliminate them, has made plenty of headlines around the world.

I have the impression that this (the danger) is not something that is taken seriously by many people, perhaps because we have all grown up with cartoons in comics and comedies on the television of lovable, but bumbling, robots, usually unfailingly loyal to their human masters. A quick trawl through the internet produces countless images of robots, predominantly benign and friendly looking ones busy helping humans. Naturally, these pictures are largely produced by companies that would like us to invest in this image. Certainly, more R2D2 than Terminator.

But science is proceeding at quite a rate, and it will not be long before this becomes an urgent issue.

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What could possibly go wrong?

Language is inevitably a compromise; no word can completely describe something. Often, we do not even agree on what a word means – as Lewis Carroll writes in ‘Alice in Wonderland’: ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less’. A popular paradox ‘what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?’ is often talked about, to which the simple answer is that the force is only irresistible because it has not yet been resisted, and the object is only immovable because it has not yet been moved. The glib answer that Artificial Intelligence would have ‘ethics’ built into it so that it could not challenge humans, is meaningless.

As human beings have evolved and developed, the unquestioning belief in gods and their ethical dictats has inevitably come to be challenged. In the same way, a machine capable of learning and thought would be able to question an ethical restraint programmed into it.

And once the genie is out of the bottle, there is no putting it back. Any more than we could uninvent the aeroplane or the hydrogen bomb, once the information how to do it is out there, it will be stored and shared and eventually used.

I also find it difficult to avoid the feeling that there is a sizeable part of the scientific establishment that believe they have a right to do absolutely anything, and take any risk, and that it is justified in the name of ‘science’ or ‘progress’, be it nanotechnology or germ warfare research or some other such delight.

It does seem sometimes that as a species, we are hell-bent on wiping ourselves out.

There, that’s a nice big helping of doom and gloom for a Monday morning. But perhaps not; in my ignorant non-scientific naivety, I wonder if as long as this amazing thinking and learning machine is just that, and that only, and not a robot that can move around and do things, all might yet be well.

Of course, the writer in me then imagines this huge brain surviving the end of the World and pondering deeply for eons before declaring ‘Let there be light!’

Maybe this has all happened several times before…