Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai unveiled the new Google Duplex tool at the company’s annual tech conference
If you suffer from existential nightmares about the future of humanity and its eventual downfall at the hands of rampant technology, then you might want to take a few deep breaths before reading this article.
Because Google has just unveiled its latest freakishly human-sounding AI that can make calls on your behalf. And when I say ‘human-sounding’ I mean it is completely impossible to tell you’re not speaking to a robot.
Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, demonstrated the technology at the Shoreline Amphitheater just outside San Francisco during the company’s annual developer conference, I/O.
It’s called Google Duplex and it promises to carry out “real world” tasks for you over the phone and even drops in natural speech quirks like “er” and “mmm-hmmm”.
“We’re still developing this technology, and we want to work hard to get this right,” Pichai said, according to The Verge. “We really want it to work in cases, say, if you’re a busy parent in the morning and your kid is sick and you want to call for a doctor’s appointment.”
Ethically, this raises some very troubling questions; most importantly, do we want robots to exist among us without us knowing they’re not, in fact, human. Do we really want to live inside Westworld?
And tech commentators have been raising their concerns on Twitter.
Tech writer Bridget Carey said: “I am genuinely bothered and disturbed at how morally wrong it is for the Google Assistant voice to act like a human and deceive other humans on the other line of a phone call, using upspeek and other quirks of language.”
I am genuinely bothered and disturbed at how morally wrong it is for the Google Assistant voice to act like a human and deceive other humans on the other line of a phone call, using upspeek and other quirks of language. "Hi um, do you have anything available on uh May 3?" #io18— Bridget Carey (@BridgetCarey) May 8, 2018
In this age of disinformation, where people don't know what's fake news... how do you know what to believe if you can't even trust your ears with now Google Assistant calling businesses and posing as a human? That means any dialogue can be spoofed by a machine and you can't tell.— Bridget Carey (@BridgetCarey) May 8, 2018
Travis Korte added: “We should make AI sound different from humans for the same reason we put a smelly additive in normally odorless natural gas.”
And Rachel Monroe said: “I was just visiting a robot testing lab (long story) where they’re working on making industrial robots look LESS friendly/human, bc if you anthropomorphize them you forget they’re huge and can kill you.”
I was just visiting a robot testing lab (long story) where they're working on making industrial robots look LESS friendly/human, bc if you anthropomorphize them you forget they're huge and can kill you— Rachel Monroe (@rachmonroe) May 9, 2018
It’s not all doom and gloom, however.
Lexy Savvides made the very good point: “Just thinking about how great Google Duplex will be for people who struggle making calls due to language or anxiety barriers.”
And for those of us whose crippling anxiety makes them despise phone calls, this could actually help/worsen our already negative tendencies.
What happens though when AI bots are the only thing we can speak to and they happen to not work a particular time? This happens, that’s what.
Either way, it feels like the universe is trying to tell us something: the robots are coming and we better start doing something about it.
*UPDATE*: After the considerable backlash to Google Duplex’s failure to identify itself as a machine, Google has released a statement confirming it will be “incorporating feedback.” A spokesperson said in a statement according to CNET:
“We understand and value the discussion around Google Duplex – as we’ve said from the beginning, transparency in the technology is important. We are designing this feature with disclosure built-in, and we’ll make sure the system is appropriately identified. What we showed at I/O was an early technology demo, and we look forward to incorporating feedback as we develop this into a product.”