Google has unveiled their human-sounding assistant Duplex, during the Google I/O conference this week. On one hand, this is going to be revolutionary technology, but on the other hand, this could be bad news. If you’re not familiar with the technology, it’s essentially a human-sounding voice that can potentially make appointments for you. During the demo, the Google Assistant made a call to a hairdresser to make an appointment, based on the time slots available in the individual’s calendar. While I can find the time to make these appointments, it can be tedious if you have to keep calling back, or trying to find a time. But with this, all I would have to do is set up my Assistant to execute the task.
This is the reason I think it’s so revolutionary. But when it comes to the downside, we have to consider the fact that this could be used in some nefarious ways. Yes – this is the conspiracy theorist in me coming out. This technology also has the ability to mimic your “speech disfluencies” – like hmmm… and ummm. These are common phrases that we use in our everyday speech. Since the Google Assistant is a robot, it’s easy to write those out of its everyday vocabulary. The concern that we should have is whether or not this is ethical.
Let’s stop to consider this for a moment. Google has added the hmm’s and umm’s into this technology in order to make you feel like you’re talking to a human. They want you to think that you’re talking to a real live human being. Does this, in fact, cross some sort of line? Would it be better if it had a robot sounding voice? Or if it said “this is the Google Assistant belonging to John Smith” – would that be acceptable?
We are living in a really interesting, and somewhat unusual time where we have to think about robots and how they will (and are) interacting with our lives. I am using the term robot, to simply mean artificial intelligence and even machine learning. Not the R2D2 type. But when you watch the real-world calls that Duplex is making, this is a conversation that we need to consider. Google seems to understand this and they have plans to build something in that let you know that maybe it’s not a human.
Two Google engineers wrote on the company’s AI blog Tuesday that the Duplex technology is “built to sound natural, to make the conversation experience comfortable. It’s important to us that users and businesses have a good experience with this service, and transparency is a key part of that. We want to be clear about the intent of the call so businesses understand the context. We’ll be experimenting with the right approach over the coming months.”
Maybe this is what Elon Musk is referring to with the robot uprising? While this type of technology is harmless when it comes to making a dentist appointment, it could get used for things that we can’t even wrap our brains around right now. Or at least, I can’t wrap my brain around at this moment. Either way, I think that this type of technology is going to become more and more mainstream, and I think that we need to keep having these conversations to make sure that it doesn’t go too far in the wrong direction.