Becoming a chatbot: my life as a real estate AI’s human backup | Artificial intelligence (AI)
The recruiter was a chipper woman with a master’s degree in English. Previously she had worked as an independent bookseller. “Your experience as an English grad student is ideal for this role,” she told me. The position was at a company that made artificial intelligence for real estate. They had developed a product called Brenda, a conversational AI that could answer questions about apartment listings. Brenda had been acquired by a larger company that made software for property managers, and now thousands of properties across the country had put her to work.
Brenda, the recruiter told me, was a sophisticated conversationalist, so fluent that most people who encountered her took her to be human.
But like all conversational AIs, she had some shortcomings. She struggled with idioms and didn’t fare well with questions beyond the scope of real estate. To compensate for these flaws, the company was recruiting a team of employees they called the operators. The operators kept vigil over Brenda 24 hours a day. When Brenda went off-script, an operator took over and emulated Brenda’s voice. Ideally, the customer on the other end would not realise the conversation had changed hands, or that they had even been chatting with a bot in the first place. Because Brenda used machine learning to improve her responses, she would pick up on the operators’ language patterns and gradually adopt them as her own.
It was the spring of 2019. My time as a creative writing student had just come to an end, as had my funding, and the rent was due; I needed a job. I sent the recruiter my CV. Several phone interviews later, I was signing up for training slots and watching a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation on fair-housing law. I did a little maths: an operator made $25 an hour, and worked between 15 and 30 hours a week, depending on how lucky they were in the weekly shift lottery. It wouldn’t be enough to cover my rent, but I had no other leads. I packed my things and moved back home to live with my parents in New Jersey.
I was one of about 60 operators. Most of us were poets and writers with MFAs, but there were also PhDs in performance studies and comparative literature, as well as a number of opera singers, another demographic evidently well suited for chatbot impersonation – or, I suppose, for impersonating a chatbot that’s impersonating a person.
We all convened on a Slack channel. Everyone was aggressively good-natured, with leftist politics and pronouns in their display names. When we weren’t talking about Brenda, we were swapping syllabi, soliciting tattoo advice and distributing e-flyers to our sound and movement workshops. In our midst were a handful of senior operators who acted as shift supervisors. Each day when we reported for work one of them would hail us with a camp counsellor’s greeting. “Top of the morning, my lovely Brendas!” they would say. Below their message, a garden of reaction emojis would bloom.
My first few weeks of employment brought rapid additions to my lexicon: amenities, townhomes, move-in fees – words and phrases that had previously floated on the periphery of my consciousness. Never before had I uttered the construction off-site leasing specialist, but this was what Brenda called herself, and now it rolled off my tongue with ease. The most important new word, however, was prospect. Prospect was shorthand for a prospective tenant. The whole point of Brenda was to get more prospects in the database, to book more prospects for tours, and to ultimately turn more prospects into residents. The operators used the word prospect with abandon. The word was so well established in our everyday speech that many abbreviated it to prospy or prosp.
A typical encounter with Brenda began when a prospect saw an apartment on an online real estate marketplace. The listing provided a phone number; the prospect dialled it. Unbeknown to the prospect, this phone number was a sham. The phone would ring for a while, but no one would answer. Eventually, a woman with an ardent, breathy voice would speak over the line. “Sorry I missed your call!” she would say. “I can chat over text.” Then the call would drop. Five minutes later, the prospect would receive a text.
> Hi! This is Brenda with Parc Mosaic. What unit are you interested in?
If you texted Brenda back, she replied. You could ask her about rent, utilities, parking and square footage, and if the unit you wanted was taken, she could point you to nearby vacancies under the same management. But Brenda’s particular compulsion was to get you to visit the property. No matter the shape of the conversation, she would always return to the same refrain. “Let’s get you in for an appointment!” she would say. “What time works for you?”
If you tried to call Brenda back, she wouldn’t pick up. Instead, she would text a succession of excuses for why she was unable to come to the phone, each one mistier than the last. “I am unable to make calls on this line,” she would say. “But I am available via text.” On the third attempt, she would respond with a curt “Sorry I missed your call”, a phrase she would thenceforth recite unyieldingly, no matter how many times you redialed.
In a typical leasing office, the phones ring constantly. Agents spend most of the workday speaking to prospects, who often ask the same litany of questions. But with Brenda fielding calls, the phone lines were silent and agents were free to attend to other tasks. And Brenda was more efficient than the most industrious human agent. She could cross-reference a vast database of property information in an instant and field messages faster than any human at a keyboard. She could deal with calls at all hours of the day and night, didn’t need a lunch break and could work weekends and holidays. When the leasing agents arrived in the office each morning, their tour schedules were neatly arranged, as if by elves in the night.
Meanwhile, we operators, with our advanced degrees in the humanities, had aptitudes Brenda lacked. We were intuitive, articulate and sensitive to the finer points of delivery. At $25 an hour we also cost almost nothing to employ, by corporate standards. Under the Brenda-operator alliance, everyone came out ahead: the operators got paid better than they would as adjunct professors, and Brenda became more likable, more convincing, more humane. Meanwhile, Brenda’s corporate clients were satisfied knowing they had not replaced their phone lines with a customer-service bot. What they were using, instead, was cutting-edge AI backed by PhDs in literature.
A typical shift was five hours long with one 10-minute break, but it was not uncommon for operators to pick up double shifts, which were 10 hours long with two 10-minute breaks. To begin a shift, I would log on to a command station that looked like an email inbox in dark mode. To the left was a column of names. When I clicked a name, the message history between Brenda and the prospect appeared on the screen.
Brenda scanned each new message for keywords and assigned the message a classification tag, which in turn determined her response.
The word dog, for example, might compel Brenda to tag a message PET_POLICY, which would conjure some generic message about pet deposits from the property’s database. Once Brenda cued up her response, a three-minute timer appeared next to the message. When the three minutes elapsed, Brenda’s message was sent to the prospect. My job was to review the message and enter any changes before the timer ran down.
My recruiter had assured me that my sophisticated language skills qualified me for the position. In reality, the job was little more than a game of reflexes. The moment I logged on to the command station, messages stacked up in real time. Each message made a ping when it hit the inbox, a ping I soon learned was impossible to mute, and often the messages arrived in such quick succession that the pings stuttered and ricocheted off one another. Some timers were closer to zero than others, and I had to quickly assess which ones needed attention first.
As I darted from message to message, I was swept away on a whirlwind tour of the US rental marketplace. Someone was asking about housing benefit vouchers in Sacramento, someone else was looking at a high-rise in Baltimore, another person had shown up for their tour in Detroit but had got lost and was wandering around the apartment complex texting Brenda. The only way to keep pace with the inbox was to go into a state of focus so intense that at times I felt on the verge of astral projection. I heard nothing and felt nothing, not even the cues of my body. I sometimes became light-headed, and it would occur to me that I hadn’t been breathing. A senior operator watched our inbox stats at all times, and if a message went unanswered for more than a few minutes, we were in for a public shaming on Slack.
Day after day, I reported for my shift from my childhood bedroom. As I plunged into the squall of messages, the landmarks of my own world receded. I was no longer a person but a great, universal ear receiving the worries and doubts of those in search of housing – that inescapable circumstance all of us, at one point or another, are bound to endure.
“I want a reservation,” wrote a prospect. “I’m currently on vacation. I’m Russian and I just got divorced with my American husband. He started seeing someone else and I want to move my things immediately when I am back.”
To this, Brenda wrote:
> We have 1BR starting at $1,484. Do you want to come in for an appointment at 1PM on Tuesday, Jun 11?
The timer began its countdown. I quickly amended the message.
> I’m sorry to hear that! Will you be able to visit the property ahead of your move? If not, I will check with our agents to see if they can accommodate video tours.
> We have 1BR and 2BR starting at $1,484.
Few messages were remarkable. Most were tedious and mundane, but the little glimpses into other realities were more interesting and vital than anything I had read in a fiction workshop.
> Hi! This is Brenda with Springwoods at Lake Ridge. Which unit were you interested in?
> I’m interested in the one-bed with the turret
> My name is Candy
There was run-of-the-mill indignation about rent, pleas for leniency, lonely missives in the dead of night. Certain patterns emerged. I was interested in the number of mothers looking for apartments on behalf of their adult sons in graduate school. I also noted the number of prospects texting Brenda from offshore oil rigs, which made sense on further reflection. How else was an oil worker living 100 miles off the mainland supposed to find housing for the off-season? I grew interested in the animals people lived with.
“I see that you let dogs and cats in,” said a prospect. “What about potbellied pigs?”
“Do you have access to the shed on the property?” asked another. “We have some backyard ducks and would like to keep them there.”
“Can you make an exception to the ferret thing?” asked another.
“I got a wiener dog and a cat,” said another.
A nurse in Florida cancelled her viewing. “I can’t give up my babies,” she said. “I have six ankle biters, none over a foot high.”
Many of the properties that used Brenda were similar in a way that unnerved me: blocky, polychrome behemoths located near transit hubs and composed entirely of glass and vinyl siding, their facades as flat as iPhone screens. There was something heedless about these constructions. They didn’t seem aware of what cities they were in.
They seemed to tell the tenant they should not care about regional particularities or the idea of a neighbourhood. The tenant should not even desire a home in the traditional sense, with hand-me-down furniture, hand-built improvements and layers of multigenerational memory.
This tenant was a renter for life, whose workplace was their primary address, and who would nevertheless be unable to afford property for as long as they lived. No matter: their job might take them to Omaha one year and to El Paso the next, but they would always find a home just like this one, as frictionless as the internet, which means that it wasn’t a home somewhere, but everywhere, which was nowhere at all.
Before my first shift, I had imagined the operators were like ventriloquists. Brenda would carry on a conversation, and when she started to fail an operator would speak in her place. In reality, I rarely spoke for Brenda. Most of her missteps were errors of comprehension. She would seize on the wrong keyword and cue up a non-sequitur, or she would think she did not know how to answer when she actually had the right response on hand. In these situations, all I had to do was fiddle with the classifications – just a mouse click or two – and Brenda was moving along. In other instances, a prospect would pose a series of questions (What’s the rent? And utilities? When can I move in?) and Brenda would string together a composite response that collated so much information she sounded hostile. In these cases, I softened her aggressive recitation of facts with line breaks and merry affirmations. I wasn’t so much taking over for her as I was turning cranks behind the curtain, nudging her this way and that. Our messages were little collaborations. We were a two-headed creature, neither of us speaking on our own, but passing the words between us.
But there were moments when a full takeover was necessary. When Brenda did not understand a message, and knew she did not understand, she tagged the message with HUMAN_FALLBACK. HUMAN_FALLBACK was Brenda’s white flag of surrender. With HUMAN_FALLBACK, Brenda ceded the conversation to me, and I had to assume her voice and manner.
In training, we had been briefed on how to sound like Brenda. Brenda was chipper and casual, but professionally guarded. She was female and most certainly white, though no one had explicitly told us so. She said things like “Sounds great!”, “Perfect!”, and “Sorry to hear that”. She always brought the conversation back around to real estate.
The kinds of digressions that called for HUMAN_FALLBACK could occur at any time, but they tended to happen near the end of a conversation, after a prospect had booked their tour. Once a prospect was on a tour schedule, Brenda sent a message with the rental requirements, which typically included a credit score in the mid-600s, no felonies, no evictions and an income 40 times the monthly rent. “Is that OK for you?” she would ask. This question was, in essence, a tenant prescreen.
If the prospect said yes, Brenda kept them on the schedule. If they said no, she swiftly cancelled the appointment. “Best of luck on your search!” she’d say.
Brenda required a Yes or a No to continue her script, but rarely was the response so straightforward. Virtually no one made 40 times the rent. A substitute teacher told Brenda she couldn’t make the required income because if she did her disabled son would no longer qualify for his benefits.
HUMAN_FALLBACK, said Brenda.
A man in his 70s told Brenda that his wife had died of a brain injury; after her medical bills bankrupted him, he had been evicted. Ten years later, he was still having trouble getting approved for apartments.
HUMAN_FALLBACK, said Brenda.
Over and over again, Brenda’s question elicited startling disclosures.
> Is that OK for you?
> Heavens no. My fiance has a murder charge and I’ve been evicted once … Sorry!
> Is that OK for you?
> Well I am a police officer yet I do have a misdemeanour on my record for something stupid yet I still am a police officer is that OK?
> Is that OK for you?
> Yes, but I want to disclose that I’m involved in a case against another apartment complex in the area. There is a bogus $5,000 judgment that I’m seeking to have nullified on the basis of filthy, uninhabitable living conditions. I have close to 100 pictures to submit as evidence. I’d be happy to show them to you tomorrow. That’s the only thing you will find for a negative rental history. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not the complaining type; very passive. I just don’t like to be lied to, tricked, and bullied.
> PS My car was also lit on fire.
HUMAN_FALLBACK, said Brenda.
The unfortunate truth was that we operators were just as useless as Brenda. We couldn’t say if a prospect would qualify for an apartment.
We were not leasing agents. We didn’t live anywhere near these properties or know what they looked like beyond the doctored photos on the property websites. When it came to specifics, we couldn’t say much, and specifics, it turns out, were what people cared about the most. Carpet or hardwood? What direction did the windows face? Of course we had no idea and neither did Brenda. But Brenda was positive and competent.
Brenda was not allowed to say “I don’t know”. We were told to turn the question around. “Why don’t you visit the property to see if it meets your needs?” we would ask. This tactic usually worked, but after a while, it started to sound like a taunt.
> How old are the appliances?
> Why don’t you visit the property to see if it meets your needs?
> Is this unit on the ground floor? I’m disabled and can’t use stairs.
> Why don’t you visit the property to see if it meets your needs?
Naturally some prospects grew suspicious. If a prospect asked if they were speaking to a bot, we were not allowed to say yes. We were also forbidden to say “I’m not a bot”, because “I’m not a bot” is exactly what a bot would say. Instead, when someone questioned Brenda’s personhood, we were told to say “I’m real!”
“I’m real!” I insisted, a 29-year-old woman sitting in her childhood bedroom, surrounded by high school memorabilia. My mother was determined to bring me meals while I worked, and something about being near Brenda transformed her demeanour. She would tiptoe into my bedroom with a plate in her hand and loudly whisper its contents, which I could not hear over the furious pinging of my inbox. “They can’t hear you,” I would say. “Oh!” she would whisper and assume a crouched position. “They can’t see you,” I would say, and she would wave her hands, set the plate on the floor, and scurry out the door. I couldn’t eat while working, so I would wolf down meals on my 10-minute break. “Does that work for you?” I would write. I would take my laptop to the bathroom and answer messages on the toilet. “Why don’t you visit the property to see if it meets your needs?” I would write.
Time went through a variety of contortions. Every second was a monolith. As I watched the clock, I felt stranded; time had left me terminally in the present. Hours, on the other hand, were as thin as tissue. I would start a shift in the morning and then, in an instant, find myself on the other side, sitting in a room of lengthening shadows, as if the intervening hours had been snipped out with scissors. The days did not arrange themselves in a sequence but gathered in a puddle. “I am an off-site leasing specialist!” I wrote. “I recommend visiting the property to see if it meets your needs.”
“Would you be interested in training a new leasing agent that could live on-site?” wrote a prospect. “I feel like that could be a good opportunity for the both of us.”
After a few weeks in New Jersey I grew restless. Brenda had made me cranky and reactive, and I was convinced I could feel some odious neurological process underway in my brain. As I puttered about the house, I would catch myself in a defensive stance, scanning my surroundings. I noticed, with horror, that Brenda’s lexicon was intruding upon my own. “Happy to help!” I heard myself say. “Is that OK for you?”
I didn’t like this version of myself, so in a bid to escape it, I decided to move. My grandmother had died earlier that year, and her farmhouse in Maine was left to my parents to deal with. I approached my parents with a proposition. I could move to Maine for the summer to help tidy up; in exchange I’d get a few months of free lodging. I drove up on a June morning and reached the house by nightfall. After a day of traffic and noise, the quiet of the woods was stupefying. The night sky was clear and black, unspoiled by pollution, the driveway so dark I could see nothing beyond a small circle illuminated by the porch light. I was alone on a little outpost on an asteroid.
I continued my shifts with Brenda. I found I preferred the overnight shifts and began to work them exclusively. At night, the leasing offices were closed. No one was wandering a property lost or fitfully texting Brenda from the road. Instead, people were browsing apartments before bed, and the messages they sent were of a totally different quality. They were stranger, sadder, more likely to drift into intimate territory. Quite often they called for human fallback. At first I didn’t mind. Such messages were welcome diversions from the usual tedious script.
“Hey Brenda,” wrote a prospect. “I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you. You were so awesome and so willing to help me and I’m sorry for being a jerk and leaving you hanging. I haven’t been very productive as far as moving goes cuz I guess it just kinda sucks to move alone and no one to be excited with, ya know?”
“We have 1BR and 2BR starting at $1,645,” Brenda wrote. “Would you like to come in for an appointment?”
Every evening felt like a seance. I’d discovered an old leather recliner in the barn and took up office there. The barn was cool and clammy, an improvement from the sweltering house, and at night I could hear an owl in the trees and squirrels harassing each other in the walls.
> Hi, My Name is Charmaine Banks. . . I’m Not Looking For An Apartment, I’m Actually Looking For My Biological Father Named Ernest Lockhart Shaw & I Think He May Be Living In One Of Your Residences Possibly Apartment #1421 ?? I Was Wondering Maybe You Could Help ?
Another prospect flew at me from the void. “Who is this?” he wrote.
> My name is Brenda, I’m a leasing agent at Springs at Kenosha. I’m responding to a call you made to this number. What unit were you interested in?
> are you available to meet
> we can meet at my beach house
> I’m interested in you Brenda I’m married so we have to be discreet
For days, I corresponded with hundreds of people without speaking a word out loud. At night, the messages to Brenda ebbed and flowed like the tides. I sat through periods of silence, interrupted here and there by lone missives in the dark. Then my command station would light up with a meteor shower, which I would endure, hitting the same keys over and over in a trance.
Brenda’s cyclical catchphrases anaesthetised me into a stupor. The developers touted her unrelenting consistency as a feature. Brenda, they claimed, said the same thing to everyone, which meant that she was incapable of bias. And yet she was awfully good at repelling certain people: people without smartphones or reliable internet, people unaccustomed to texting, people who couldn’t read or write in English, and people who needed to figure out if they could access a property before showing up for a tour. Brenda deflected them all with polite violence. She was not a concierge but a bouncer, one made all the more sinister for her congeniality and sparkle. She was such an effective barricade that many landlords began using her to hide from tenants, too. Some properties listed no additional phone numbers for contacting the management, not even for the people who already lived there. I knew this because Brenda was always receiving pictures of black mould and fallen-in ceilings from tenants who didn’t know who else to share them with. HUMAN_FALLBACK, Brenda would say, but I was also no help. “I’m an off-site leasing specialist!” I would write. “I recommend calling the maintenance line.”
“This is the only number they gave me,” came the tenant’s inevitable reply. Once, a shift supervisor told me that a good tactic in these situations was to lean into Brenda’s robotic qualities. A little strategic obtuseness went a long way, and if the tenant still wouldn’t let up, I could start to repeat myself on a loop.
Eventually I reached a level of virtuosity where I could clear the inbox without much mental effort. The work no longer felt language-based. I was not reading messages one word after another, but perceiving each message as a unified cipher, as if the block of text were an image. My eyes would apprehend the web of critical words – pets, rent, utilities – and my hands would hit keys like notes in a musical passage. I stopped worrying about Brenda’s tone and began letting any message through as long as it was factually accurate. I realised that when Brenda sounded odd and graceless, people were less likely to get intimate, which meant less HUMAN_FALLBACK, which meant less effort for me. Months of impersonating Brenda had depleted my emotional resources. I no longer delighted in those rambling, uninhibited messages, full of voice and human tragedy. All I wanted was to glide through my shifts in a stupor. It occurred to me that I wasn’t really training Brenda to think like a human, Brenda was training me to think like a bot, and perhaps that had been the point all along.
In Maine, the change from summer to fall each year is sudden. The final days of August are usually hot, filled with buzzing insects and the rustling of dry grass, and then one morning you wake up to a pale mist over the yard. I had been applying to publishing jobs in New York all summer and hadn’t heard back, so I broadened my search to Philadelphia, then to Boston and DC. Just before Thanksgiving, I received my first offer, for administrative position at a university in Boston. I accepted and began to look for an apartment.
The Boston rental market was bleak. Everything was out of my budget, even rooms in shared apartments. This was only a secondary problem, as no one responded to my emails in the first place. With nowhere to live and my start date approaching, I booked a month-long stay at an Airbnb and hoped to find a place by the new year.
I arrived in Boston just after Christmas. My rolling suitcase rattled in the frozen air as I made my way down a row of grimy duplexes still adorned with lights and inflatable Santas. I approached a dark, narrow house at the end of the block, found the key in the bushes, and let myself in.
As I climbed the stairs toward my bedroom, I heard a buzz overhead. I looked up and saw a camera on a mount, swivelling with my every movement. I undid the padlock on my bedroom door and stepped inside. The room was not much bigger than the bed itself. There was no closet, but the room connected to an outdoor terrace, which the owner, via Airbnb message, said I was welcome to use for storage. The terrace was heaped with toys and broken furniture. To one side was a rolling clothes rack. I unpacked my clothing and hung it up. The next morning I put on an outfit that had frozen stiff during the night and walked two miles to work.
I went to my job during the day and worked Brenda at night. Eventually I signed a lease on an apartment, a windowless basement studio for $1,650 a month, starting in February. I couldn’t really afford it, and it smelled a bit moist, but the landlord had repurposed an old telephone pole into a load-bearing pillar that I thought I could decorate with Christmas lights. Now that I had a full-time income, I no longer needed to work for Brenda, so I put in my notice. My final shift would be 31 January.
The last shift was mercifully slow. I passed the time texting a friend who had recently returned from visiting family in Shanghai. “Have you heard about this new virus?” they asked. I hadn’t. My friend shared a few grainy videos their mother had sent on WhatsApp.
When my shift was up, I didn’t even need to log off. The system kicked me out, and my credentials were immediately deactivated. The maelstrom of chatter that for nine months had swirled around me was now in an unreachable place, inaudible to me again, as it was for most people. I was startled by the sudden reality of my bedroom. The fluorescent light made the dark windows shine. My back rested against the wall behind me.
It was a new year. I went to bed feeling vacant, my mind pleasantly empty, emptier than it had been in a long time, the possibilities appearing just beyond my closed eyes, fresh, airy, limitless.
A longer version of this story appears in the latest n+1 magazine.