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The mystery of the never-ending con-call

June 11, 2018 08:26 IST

The attendee had to call into the conference call and say a few initial pleasantries to establish his/her presence, but could then leave the app to handle the rest once the Senior Company Bore began his monologue....
A rib-tickling excerpt from Sanjeev Sanyal's Life Over Two Beers.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/

The mystery of the con-call

All hell broke loose in the accounts department when the telecom company presented a bill of a few million dollars for an international conference call that had gone on for three months.

The head of the accounts department wrote back indignantly saying that the bill was obviously untenable because no conference call could go on for that long.

The telecom company reverted with incontrovertible proof that the conference call had indeed taken place, including a full recording of the proceedings.

A subsequent investigation revealed what had transpired.


It all began when a college dropout set up a company called Call-Con in his basement and developed an app that could stand in for people who had to attend long and tedious conference calls.

The attendee had to call into the conference call and say a few initial pleasantries to establish his/her presence, but could then leave the app to handle the rest once the Senior Company Bore began his monologue.

The app user would have pre-recorded in their own voice a few set phrases such as 'Interesting, please go on', 'Can you repeat the last bit, please', 'This may be a possible solution but have you discussed it with legal and compliance' and so on.

Artificial intelligence recognised gaps in the conversation and inserted these phrases appropriately into the discussion.

As an additional precaution, the app was also able to recognise when a specific question was aimed at the user and would then play back 'Let me look into this and get back to you next week.'

A short recording of the question was then sent to the user for further action.

The app became very popular and went viral within months.

Although no one admitted to using it, a technology magazine estimated that 30-40 per cent of conference call attendees worldwide were using the app part or all of the time.

In fact, there was many an occasion when virtually all of the attendees on a conference call, with the exception of the Senior Company Bore, were being proxied by the app.

The senior company bores, oddly, did not seem to have noticed the difference.

Even those bores who had heard of the app were smug in the belief that no one would ever dream of using it on them.

Two years later, Call-Con was listed on the New York Stock Exchange at an initial valuation of over a billion dollars.

At the celebratory dinner, the founder made a passionate speech about how his company was 'making the world a better place'.

For once, many people genuinely agreed.

One of the attendees begged him to work on an application that would automatically wish people Happy Birthday on social media and 'like' all photographs of pets that their friends posted. This was sure to improve social harmony and promote world peace.

The suggestion received loud applause.

Life Over Two Beers

A professor of English literature from a well-known university wrote a long newspaper article highlighting the absurdity of the situation and argued passionately that nothing better could be expected from the crass commercialisation of the art of conversation by business schools and the technology industry.

He soon set up a Society for the Preservation of Conference Calls at his university and several passionate student activists joined it.

They held violent protests that succeeded in cancelling a university lecture by the founder of Call-Con.

The professor was, however, conspicuously silent when the company announced a few months later that it was releasing an app that could spontaneously generate scholarly reviews of works of art, fine wines and high literature.

A few of his rivals subsequently did point out a noticeable increase in the frequency of his publications in high-brow journals.

So, what did the investigation uncover about the multimillion-dollar con-call bill?

It seems that everyone on the call had been using the app that day, but the Senior Company Bore had somehow failed to call in.

Since no one delivered a monologue, the app was unable to discern when the call ended.

The discussion kept running with the app inserting prerecorded phrases from different attendees to keep the conversation going.

The conference call went on for three full months till, luckily, someone in the telecom company noticed something was wrong and considerately ended the call.

The possibility of such a situation had occurred to some of the programmers at Call-Con while developing the software, but they had concluded that it was impossible, even with all the latest artificial intelligence, for a mere programme to discern if a conference call was dead or alive.

The glitch, therefore, could not be corrected.

They need not have worried. Neither the users nor the telecom companies ever raised the matter.

As for the multimillion-dollar bill -- it was quietly settled.

Many senior executives had been involved and no one wanted to attract attention to it.

The bill was classified under 'Other Miscellaneous Business Expenses' when company accounts were next presented to shareholders.

There were furious debates on a number of issues at the shareholders' meet but no one noticed the spike in an innocuous category at the bottom of the page.

The Senior Company Bore who had failed to call in, however, was not so lucky. He was replaced for dereliction of duty.

Excerpted from Life Over Two Beers by Sanjeev Sanyal, with the kind permission of the publishers, Penguin Random House India.

Sanjeev Sanyal