Alibaba debuts a chatbot to tackle robocalls

1 min read
(Image credit: Alibaba)

A smart assistant recently launched by Alibaba may be one way to avoid aggravating and sometimes downright aggressive telemarketing phone calls that plague some people up to multiple times a day.

The Chinese e-commerce giant announced on Saturday that it is testing a smart assistant service for the purpose of diverting telemarketing calls. In a video demo released by the company on Weibo, the chatbot is capable of conversing like a real person during a cold call, talking about insurance, loans, and real estate and asking telemarketers questions for more than a minute.

According to creator Nie Zaiqing, chief scientist at Alibaba’s research affiliate A.I. Labs, one of his intentions was to create a firewall for his team to avoid bothersome calls during meetings. The chatbot employs deep reinforcement learning algorithms, based on a broad range of general knowledge and speech processing technologies, to enable meaningful dialogue between bot and human.

However, it failed to respond appropriately to basic conversation during a call on Monday with TechNode. The company told TechNode that the trial version, available now on Alibaba’s Ant Financial payment platform and the mobile platform for smart speaker Tmall Genie, still has limited functionality and an official launch will take place by year-end.

The announcement comes on the heels of Friday’s annual Consumer Day gala organized by state-owned broadcaster CGTN, which aired a list of Chinese AI firms developing robocall services for money lenders and real estate agents. Each robot, worth RMB 3,000 (around $450), can reportedly make up to 5,000 phone calls a day, more than ten-fold what a human can accomplish.

One of companies named during the gala, Shanxi-based AI firm Yikexin, is now being investigated by police and market regulators, according to Chinese media. Another company named during the gala, Bihe, is backed by AI firm iFlytek, which said it was not involved in the company’s business management in a statement (in Chinese) released Saturday.