FCC aims to investigate the risk of AI-enhanced robocalls

As if robocalling wasn't already enough of a problem, the advent of easily accessible, realistic AI-powered writing and synthetic voice could supercharge the practice. The FCC aims to preempt this by looking into how generated robocalls might fit under existing consumer protections.

A Notice of Inquiry has been proposed by Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel to be voted on at the agency's next meeting. If the vote succeeds (as it is almost certain to), the FCC would formally look into how the Telephone Consumer Protection Act empowers them to act against scammers and spammers using AI technology.

But Rosenworcel was also careful to acknowledge that AI represents a potentially powerful tool for accessibility and responsiveness in phone-based interactions.

"While we are aware of the challenges AI can present, there is also significant potential to use this technology to benefit communications networks and their customers—including in the fight against junk robocalls and robotexts. We need to address these opportunities and risks thoughtfully, and the effort we are launching today will help us gain more insight on both fronts," she said in a statement.

Any industry that involves a lot of voice, like customer service, is likely already looking into how automation and generative AI can be used to augment human agents' effectiveness. Instead of responding with a canned response, for instance, a call center employee could have an AI consult a knowledge base and provide a script customized to a customer's exact experience. Or an AI-powered triage system could improve the laborious "If you are calling for this, press 1... for this, press 2..." process that few enjoy.

But the same technologies that could make a tedious job more efficient, or an interface more intuitive, could be deployed in other ways to trick or inconvenience people. One can imagine (and indeed some likely don't have to imagine) robocalls catering to one's profession, age and location — the kind of tailored scams that took time to craft before but can now be automated.

It's an emerging threat, and the FCC is ostensibly the cop on the beat; while they have hit robocallers before for record fines (though these are not always collected), they need to stay ahead of the game and this inquiry is intended to help them do that.

Specifically, Rosenworcel said that the effort would look at:

  • How AI technologies fit into the Commission’s statutory responsibilities under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA);

  • If and when future AI technologies fall under the TCPA;

  • How AI impacts existing regulatory frameworks and future policy formulation;

  • If the Commission should consider ways to verify the authenticity of legitimately generated AI voice or text content from trusted sources; and,

  • What next steps, if any, are necessary to advance this inquiry.

If it sounds a little woolly, just remember that these inquiry-type efforts are what the agency and others like it rely on when performing actual rulemaking and justifying themselves in court.