Google Duplex: Are We Ready For Human-sounding Computers?

The first radio column for my new series on CBC Radio’s Ottawa Morning. In this segment, host Hallie Cotnam and I discuss the implications of Google Duplex.

Listen to the column.

What Is Google Duplex?

Google Duplex is a new service that can call businesses on your behalf in order to;

That doesn’t sound like much…until you realize that it accomplishes these tasks on it’s own with only a simple request from you. Take a look at Google Duplex in action;

Google Duplex was initially announce at Google I/O in May, 2018 and is now rolling out in limited release.

Natural Language

One of the biggest challenges with Google Duplex is just how realistic it sounds. Google Duplex is the first autonomous service to use a part of speech called “disfluencies”. There are the “ummm” and “ahh” and “mhmmm” sounds that we naturally make—often without even realizing it.

The goal of this (and other) techniques is to enable the natural flow of conversation.

We’ve all had those awkward experiences with “interactive” voice systems when we call into a big company. Most people just end up mashing the keypad until a human comes on the line. One of the main reasons is because those interactions are awkward. They lack flow.

Google Duplex is designed to be natural. It’s a completely different level of experience.

Deceptive?

When it was first demoed, Google Duplex did not identify itself as a machine. The very natural sound and flow and lack of clear identification, set off warning bells for a lot of people.

The idea that a semi-independent machine could ring you up on the phone and request a service unnerved people.

It also broached a bigger question, does this service pass the Turing test? Or some version of it?

“Did Google Duplex just pass the Turing Test?” by @LanceUlanoff https://t.co/GrQfHaKAGa

— Christopher Ross (@crossphd) May 26, 2018

I don’t believe that Google Duplex passes the test…yet. The primary reason is because of it’s narrow focus on interactions that are of short duration. But for those interactions–like booking an appointment–it’s certainly possible that most humans it speaks to would be unaware that it’s a machine.

This is main reason why it now introduces itself at the start of the conversation.

What’s Next?

This is a first, small step in voice-based AI. The fact that it reaches out to initiate a conversation sets it apart from Siri, Alexa, and Cortana.

In the short term, this helps Google by addressing a constant, tiny thorn in their side: adding holiday hours to the Search Knowledge Graph and thus, to Google Maps.

For users, it also opens up the approx. 60% of restaurants and salons that don’t take online reservations (that’s Google’s number). Of course, that reinforces the idea of “just Google it” in the user’s mind as well.

A.I.s In The Community

Google Duplex challenges us to confront a critical question, “Are we ready for technology to act independently?”.

Despite what we enjoy in our movies, robots that can act on their own are essentially aliens within our communities. As A.I. and indepdent actions develop, even the builders of that technology aren’t 100% sure of the decisions it will make.

That’s a difficult question to pose to society. There is no easy answer.

Worse yet, we aren’t even asking the questions as this point. Look no further than the last year’s worth of Facebook scandals, data breaches, and scooter scourges. Do we really trust oursevels—or more accurate a tiny fractionally subset of ourselves most likely in Silicon Valley—to build technology that can act responsibly on it’s own?