Before you read on, watch the demonstration and ask yourself: Did Google just pass the Turing test? There’s so much humanity in a well-placed “ummm.”
Booking a dinner reservation isn’t what Turing had in mind but if this is a failing grade it’s at least a high failing grade. With a few years of refinement, a D- is in sight. Within 10-20 years, they’ll ace it. Fifty years from now, the population of Japan will be down to six guys and they’ll all be on the phone 24/7 with their AI girlfriends having the liveliest, most charming conversations.
Consider this your latest reminder that very soon you won’t be able to trust anything you see or hear. People are already having ethics freakouts over the Duplex technology:
Google Assistant making calls pretending to be human not only without disclosing that it's a bot, but adding "ummm" and "aaah" to deceive the human on the other end with the room cheering it… horrifying. Silicon Valley is ethically lost, rudderless and has not learned a thing.
— zeynep tufekci (@zeynep) May 9, 2018
As digital technologies become better at doing human things, the focus has to be on how to protect humans, how to delineate humans and machines, and how to create reliable signals of each—see 2016. This is straight up, delilberate deception. Not okay. https://t.co/XTUn4tvDik
— zeynep tufekci (@zeynep) May 9, 2018
There are “woke” takes too, of course. Just as every new life in creation instantly becomes a host for bacteria, so too every new cultural development of note instantly attracts virtue-signaling about how the underprivileged are destined to be cheated or oppressed by it:
It seems pretty clear who will be at the receiving end of those phone calls. It won’t be other “busy” people. It will be the restaurant hosts, the hair stylists, the receptionists, and others whose (often low-paid) job it is to field calls from clients. It is doubtful that Google Duplex will be used to set up meetings with people who are important to you—you’d want to do that yourself, right?
Duplex shields those who reside high up on the hill from those down below. It relieves them of the awkwardness of having to talk to someone of lower socioeconomic standing. The functionality will likely be very popular for that reason, but it is important to understand the extra burden put on those at the receiving end: They will spend their day trying to figure out whether the entity at the other end of the line is human. (One possible benefit: At least Duplex is unlikely to be a jerk to a service worker.)
Said one indignant futurologist, “I would feel offended if someone considers their time so much more valuable than mine that they think it is acceptable to demand minutes of my time to deal with a transaction they’ve delegated to a server farm, and any existing relationship would be greatly damaged.” It makes me laugh to think of people watching the clip above and imagining a future where jobs like “receptionist” still exist, with human beings forced to conduct petty phone transactions with algorithms all day long. As Google improves AI and makes it cheap and ubiquitous, voice transactions will quickly become inefficient and archaic. You’ll just tell Duplex what you want, the AI will communicate silently with the AI of the business you’re transacting with, and the reservation will be booked. Nothing that doesn’t absolutely require human interaction will be done, or need to be done, by voice.
What we’re really watching here, I assume, is the germ of AI companions. Booking a reservation is a test to see if a human being can be led to believe it’s conversing with another human being, even in a simple chat with a specific purpose. From here it’s a matter of building that out. The logical endpoint of Duplex isn’t to talk to customer service, it’s to talk to you. You’ve seen this movie! Google might as well sign Scarlett Johansson for the rights to her voice now and get cracking.
Here’s Google’s post describing the challenges they had to overcome to get something natural-sounding. I do think they’re going to come under pressure to eliminate the gratuitous tricks designed to fool people, like peppering the speech with “um,” and maybe to build a rule into it requiring Duplex to admit that it’s AI if asked. That could defeat the purpose, of course: Some human beings might hang up on a robot rather than proceed. But since, for now, this is an application for businesses, that risk seems small. What restaurateur is going to hang up on someone who’s trying to book dinner just because their Google gizmo is doing it for them? They’d be throwing money away. Besides, things won’t get *really* weird until they figure out how to make the AI super-charming. Imagine chatting with a flirty customer who has you laughing and then it suddenly occurs to you, “Wait — are you a robot?” And the flirty response comes: “Do you want me to be?”