Google is giving phone users the option to spam their spammers. The new Pixel 3 smartphone, which the company unveiled on Tuesday, features a virtual assistant that can help screen out robocalls by responding to the automated calls with its own automated messages. With the tap of a button, users will be able to send suspicious incoming calls to the assistant, which will tell the caller, “Hi, the person you’re calling is using a screening service from Google, and will get a copy of this conversation. Go ahead and say your name, and why you’re calling.” The assistant then transcribes the caller’s response in real time. Based on this response, the user can either accept the call, send a preset text, or report it as spam. The last option directs the assistant to tell the telemarketer, “Please remove the number from your mailing contact list. Thanks, and goodbye.” Google said it eventually plans to roll the A.I. tool out to all Pixel models.
There will presumably be a bit of a learning curve for actual people calling Pixel phones who will have to speak to a robot to prove that they are not a robot, but the screening process seems straightforward enough—it’s not as if you have to pass a CAPTCHA test or anything. And no doubt telemarketers will eventually find workarounds using half-truths or outright lies in their responses to the assistant to trick people into picking up, though this represents one more barrier in their way.
Robocalls have been on the rise in recent years, with experts predicting that they will account for 46 percent of all calls by the middle of 2019. The FTC received 375,000 robocall complaints per month in 2017, up from 63,000 complaints per month in 2009.* Automated call numbers have skyrocketed even in the past year: The screening service YouMail estimates that 3.4 billion robocalls were made in April, a staggering increase of 900 million per month compared to 2017. The FCC has of late attempted to stymie this fire hose of pesky calls by instituting new regulations around manipulating caller ID and by fining big-time robocallers millions of dollars, though it’s unclear if this has done much to ameliorate the issue.
Google in July updated its Android Phone app to implement a tool that can automatically identify some spam callers via caller ID and allow users to send them to voicemail. However, the tool had trouble identifying spammers engaging in neighbor spoofing, a technique that disguises robocalls with local numbers. No doubt such methods will continue to fool people—but if they’re suspicious, the Pixel 3’s technology will at least give them one new tool to fight back.
Correction, Oct. 9, 2018: This piece originally misreported the number of robocall complaints per month the FTC received in 2009. The correct number is 63,000, not 39,000.