The most talked-about, futuristic product from Google’s developer show isn’t even finished — but it’s already stoking heated debate.
At its I/O conference, Alphabet Inc.’s Google previewed Duplex, an experimental service that lets its voice-based digital assistant book appointments on its own. It was part of a slate of features, such as automated writing in emails, where Google touted how its artificial intelligence technology saves people time and effort. In a demonstration on stage, the Google Assistant spoke with a hair salon receptionist, mimicking the “ums” and “hmms” pauses of human speech. In another demo, it chatted with a restaurant employee to book a table. The audience of software coders cheered.
Outside the Google technology bubble, critics pounced. The company is placing robots in conversations with humans, without those people realising. The obvious question soon followed: Should AI software that’s smart enough to trick humans be forced to disclose itself. Google executives don’t have a clear answer yet. Duplex emerged at a sensitive time for technology companies, and the feature hasn’t helped alleviate questions about their growing power over data, automation software and the consequences for privacy and work.
“Horrifying”, Zeynep Tufekci, a professor and frequent tech company critic, wrote on Twitter about Duplex. “Silicon Valley is ethically lost, rudderless and has not learned a thing.”
Robotic voices should always sound “synthetic” rather than human, wrote Stewart Brand, an author who advocates for long-term thinking and responsibility in the face of advancing technology and other trends. “Successful spoofing of any kind destroys trust.”
As in previous years, Google unveiled a feature before it was ready. Google is still debating how to unleash it, and how human to make the technology, several employees said. That debate touches on a far bigger dilemma for Google: As the company races to build uncanny, human-like intelligence, it is wary of any missteps that cause people to lose trust in using its services.
Duplex has been designed to perform a limited range of very specific tasks. Google’s AI technology isn’t smart enough to learn to do many other things quickly. If the human on the other end of the line asked questions about something other than hair or restaurants, Duplex wouldn’t have a human answer and may well end the call — making it clear it is software.