Google’s I/O 2018 brought some of the company’s most exciting projects to our attention and along with that, we also got a peak at Duplex, the new virtual assistant that sounds like a human. And it kind of freaked us out.
During the event, Duplex was presented through short but descriptive phone calls. On the first one it booked an appointment at a hair salon. On the second it made a reservation to a restaurant. In both conversation Duplex used all the characteristic traits of human speech and tone; the result was jaw-dropping. The robot appeared to use words such as “um” and “mhmm”, while it also made sure to grasp and pause in various points, as if it was trying to buy some time to think. The overall tone of its sentences was vigorous and sentimental.
As far as technology and artificial intelligence is concerned, Google has truly outdone itself and everyone else, by creating a system that can mimic human voice and sentiment to that extent. Some experts say that the machine is ready to pass even the Turing test; that test was suggested by Alan Turing, the father of all computer science, and part of it basically says that the ultimate AI computer’s natural responses will sound just like those of a human being.
At this point it is worth noting that the product itself is not available for users or businesses yet, but it’s still the closest we’ve ever gotten to a ‘real’ computer.
However, when the academic excitement wore off, people were horrified by the idea that a metal-cold machine can trick people into thinking that they’re having a normal conversation with another person. For the record, neither the receptionist at the hair salon nor the guy at the restaurant knew who – or in this case what – they were speaking with.
Ethically speaking, it is quite alarming to think that sometime in the foreseeable future, we will lose the ability to tell whether the voice at the other end of the line belongs to a human being or the Duplex system. And while the system is used only for reservations so far, it could soon gain the ability to do everything that out current virtual assistants like Echo and Siri do, thus gaining access to tons of our data such as personal preferences, browsing history etc.
In an effort to address the public outcry, a Google spokesperson stated in a recently issued blog post:
“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.”
It's still a tad early for conclusions or predictions, but one thing is for sure; Alphabet’s child company needs to make sure to keep their promise and make the Duplex system as transparent and discrete as possible. And while we can’t possibly know how that can be done, we certainly expect Google to know.