Answers for 50 Cents: Testing the New KGB

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The KGB's agents are everywhere. They're with me when I go for a walk, they follow me home after work, and if I wake up in the middle of the night, they're just a phone call away.

I'm talking about the Knowledge Generation Bureau, of course. The Knowledge Generation Bureau is a text-message-based information service that, for 50 cents a text, will answer any question you have as accurately as possible. The New York City–based company has been a major player in the directory assistance market for years; when you dial 411, chances are good that KGB will answer.

But people don't call for information anymore, says Bruce Stewart, KGB's CEO of mobile and digital. They text. "When you want to know something, you text your friend or someone who might know. We are looking to be that someone." After launching a successful texting service in the U.K., KGB decided to bring it to the U.S. The beta test launched last fall, and already the company has thousands of "agents" ready to provide you with anything from movie times and train schedules to the type of pen Bob Dole holds in his hand. (Answer: sometimes it's felt-tipped, sometimes ballpoint, and occasionally it's a pencil.) (See pictures of the cell phone's history.)

Agents work from home on their own schedules and make 10 cents a text (5 cents if they simply forward a computer-generated response, like driving directions or phone numbers). Applicants must pass a "Special Agents Challenge": a trivia game mixed with a standardized math test for middle schoolers. Since applicants can cheat by using the Internet, failing is a challenge.

The KGB acronym isn't accidental. Knowledge Generation Bureau's television commercial — in which an older gentleman interrogates a young recruit about the capital of New Zealand and the song "Sugar Sugar" — never tells you what the company is selling, and it deliberately tries to associate the KGB initials with mystery and conspiracy. "We wanted to rebrand the KGB," says Stewart. "We're democratizing information, giving knowledge out to the broad public instead of taking it. Contrast that to the historical one, and people say, 'Oh, I get it.' "

Despite Stewart's claim, the Global Knowledge Network is also taking plenty of knowledge for itself, since the more users text, the more KGB can discover about its customers. For now, there are no plans to sell the information to marketers, but, says Stewart, "We see what are people asking about. What movies are they asking to see, what restaurants are they interested in going to, what sports teams they like, what merchandise they're looking to buy — there is an interesting level of insight about what people are thinking." (See the top 10 iPhone applications.)

In the Internet age there are very few questions that can't be answered with a simple Google search. And with Web-capable cell phones, there really isn't any need for KGB or the similar service ChaCha (which is free but more annoying because its messages are riddled with ads). So KGB has to distinguish itself by the accuracy and speed of its answers. To find out if the company's service is of any use, we put it to the test, sending different questions at different times throughout the day to 542542 (or "KGBKGB"). Below are the unedited texts and KGB's responses.


Q: How tall is Danny DeVito?
KGB: Danny DeVito is 5 inches tall. His birth name is Daniel Michael DeVito Jr., born Nov. 17, 1944. Thx! (Response time: 3 minutes)
Q: 5 inches? Don't you mean 5 feet?
KGB: My apologies. Danny DeVito is 5 feet tall. He was in the movie Romancing the Stone. Thx. (Response time: 3 minutes)

Q: What was the last movie Orson Welles worked on before he died?
KGB: The last film roles before Welles' death included voice work in the animated film The Enchanted Journey. Thx. (Response time: 5 minutes)

Actually, The Enchanted Journey was not Orson Welles' last film. His last role was the 1986 animated feature Transformers: The Movie. I asked this question on purpose because I happen to know the answer; some geeky male friends educated me on the topic long ago.


Q: What is in earwax?
KGB: Earwax is a mixture of viscous secretions like squalene, lanosterol, and cholesterol. Thx. (Response time: 2 minutes)

Q: What is asparagus pee? Why does it smell funny?
KGB: Asparagus gives a distinctive smell in the urine due to various sulfur-containing degradation products and ammonia. Thx!


Q: What does the B. stand for in Rutherford B. Hayes?
KGB: The letter B in the name stands for Birchard. His complete name is Rutherford Birchard Hayes. (Response time: 4 minutes)

Q: What did Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton duel over?
KGB never responded to this question. Epic failure.

Current Events

Q: Why can't the American auto industry get its act together?
KGB: It may be because the industry had lots of problems encountering they need to focus on. (Response time: 2 minutes)

Q: Is the stimulus package pushed by Barack Obama big enough to jump-start the economy?
KGB: We think that its success lies with the support of his fellow leaders & his constituents. Thx. (Response time: 4 minutes)

Q: Would Barack Obama and I get along as friends?
KGB: You would probably get along with him because we all live in America, and Obama seems like a nice person. Thx. (Response time: 4 minutes)

Plus, I can play basketball.

The Unknowable

Q: How old will I be when I die?
KGB: No one would know. Sometimes, it would depend on your lifestyle. If you're living healthy, you'll live longer.

Q: Does God exist?
KGB: Most deist belief systems consider God as eternal and immeasurable by man's limited scope of time. Thx. (Response time: 1 minute)

Read "Testing Google's 'Drunk E-Mail' Protector."

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