GoogleвЂ™s A.I. personal assistant sparks concerns about future of communication
TORONTO вЂ” Aimee Morrison doesnвЂ™t look forward to the not-too-distant future when she might have to constantly doubt whether sheвЂ™s speaking on the phone with robots powered by artificial intelligence, or reading emails composed by algorithms.
Earlier this week, Google unveiled demos of new A.I. services that had the web abuzz, including Duplex, which would allow users to outsource the drudgery of booking appointments with businesses by phone to a virtual personal assistant.
Google released recordings of calls it says were placed to businesses вЂ” including booking a restaurant reservation and a hair salon appointment вЂ” in which the employees answering the phone seemed to have no clue they were interacting with a robot.
In calling about the restaurant reservation, GoogleвЂ™s A.I. was able to seamlessly handle a series of questions in a nearly minute-long conversation and was not flummoxed when told a booking wasnвЂ™t necessary since the eatery wouldnвЂ™t be busy. In both calls, the computerized voices occasionally dropped some вЂњummsвЂќ and вЂњmm-hmmsвЂќ in the script to appear more life-like.
вЂњThe Google Duplex technology is built to sound natural, to make the conversation experience comfortable. ItвЂ™s important to us that users and businesses have a good experience with this service, and transparency is a key part of that. We want to be clear about the intent of the call so businesses understand the context. WeвЂ™ll be experimenting with the right approach over the coming months,вЂќ Google wrote in a blog post about the technology, adding вЂњit cannot carry out general conversations.вЂќ
вЂњI live in fear of a Google Duplex world where I have to make a hair appointment and the person on the other end treats me like a robot and is awful to me and how am I going to prove that IвЂ™m a human?вЂќ said Morrison, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo who studies technologyвЂ™s impact on culture.
вЂњIs it going to make all of our conversations with each other deeply suspicious and mistrustful? Is it going to encourage rampant disrespect and awfulness as we learn that some human voices are not really human?вЂќ
University of Toronto Prof. Gerald Penn called the execution of the Google demos вЂњbrilliantвЂќ but said thatвЂ™s partly because the A.I. targeted an unsuspecting target. Someone who knew they could be talking to GoogleвЂ™s software would likely be able to outsmart it, added Penn, who studies natural language processing.
вЂњThere are going to be some rigid boundaries as to what Duplex can do, and if youвЂ™re interested in tricking the system and determining if itвЂ™s a human on the line or not, you could certainly do that,вЂќ he said.
The technology could eventually have a significant impact on the customer service industry, which would have to begin catering to robot callers, he added.
вЂњWhatвЂ™s going to happen to small retailers when a significant part of the phone calls theyвЂ™re receiving are not from people? Because that could turn into a kind of negative spiral where theyвЂ™re disincentivized to provide any kind of decent phone support, because theyвЂ™re just talking to robots anyway.вЂќ
Google also unveiled a feature for its Gmail service called Smart Compose, which provides users with suggested strings of text for emails. Beyond simply predicting the word the user is typing, the software tries to anticipate their whole thought and attempts to offer complete suggested sentences.
вЂњBecause theyвЂ™re running Gmail they get all the data, all the emails that people compose, and they can probably train a system to provide replies that would mimic how others have composed their emails before and provide that to users who can simply select some potential replies,вЂќ said Prof. Pascal Poupart of the University of Waterloo, who studies artificial intelligence and machine learning.
вЂњAnd the beauty of this system is whenever people are going to select something, that provides a feedback that Google can then use to further improve (the service) because it will know which types of replies are effective.вЂќ
He found Smart Compose less controversial than Duplex, noting вЂњitвЂ™s common already that very, very busy people will often have an assistant who replies to emails on their behalf.вЂќ
вЂњThereвЂ™s already this kind of delegation happening and now the only difference is weвЂ™re delegating that to a machine,вЂќ he said.
But Morrison is disturbed by the potential outcomes of the feature becoming popular.
вЂњDuplex is trying to make machines pass as humans and what the email assistant is trying to do is make humans sound more like machines. So theyвЂ™re taking the human out of the conversation at both ends,вЂќ she said.
вЂњWhat those things have a tendency to do is really collapse the variety and joy of human conversation into a serious of stock phrases вЂ¦ and literally erase other ways of expressing yourself.вЂќ