Red telephone boxes like dominos

Google Duplex highlights the issues surrounding AI

Tim Collingwood - 25 May 2018

On the 8th May 2018 at their I/O ’18 developer conference Google unveiled something that I thought was truly a glimpse of the future and an amazing demonstration of what Google have been able to achieve with Artificial Intelligence (AI). What they ‘demonstrated’ was Google Duplex, an AI system which can make phones calls on your behalf to carry out real world tasks via Google Assistant. For example, you would ask Google Assistant to book a table at your favourite restaurant for next Tuesday at 8pm. Google Duplex would then make a call, book the restaurant and report back to you to confirm via Google Assistant.

Take a look at Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai showing off their new technology in the video below.

You can also read up a bit more about Duplex on Google’s AI blog.

Speech nuances such as mm-hmm, um, and er are probably not necessary but they are what I think make the difference in ‘tricking’ the recipient of the call into thinking they are talking to a real person.

From a technology point-of-view, I think this is pretty amazing. Google have developed a project/service which can hold a conversation with a person without the person on the other end of the call suspecting they are talking to a computer. Here lies the problem….


Is this ethically right?

Since Google demoed Duplex, there have been a lot questions about whether it’s ethically right -should the person on the other end of the phone at least be told they are talking to a bot rather than a person.

What Google has created is as close to human as possible, which you might argue is unnecessary. Perhaps Google felt it was necessary to include speech nuances to create the illusion you are speaking to a human and to facilitate an organic conversation, and for people to not hang up the phone every time they think they are talking to a computer.

Since the demo, Google have announced that they will ensure that Google Duplex introduces itself as AI before calls.

There are also some concerns about the demo itself, and whether the people being called knew they were being recorded. However, Google has since confirmed that it will conform to laws in relation to recording calls.

Google’s most recent statement should at least put to bed concerns over how the service will work going forward, but until we see the service rolled out, I think it will be difficult to tell how it will be received and used. I personally can’t see receivers of a call hanging up because they will not want to turn away business from customers who choose to use the feature.


What is the impact of this long term?

Whilst I still think that from a technological point-of-view that Google Duplex is pretty extraordinary, the more I think of a future with this type of technology readily available, the more I’m concerned. It’s important to look at this in terms of what Google has achieved with AI, rather than what Duplex is specifically designed to do. Google could be any company (or individual) and Duplex could be any human making / receiving a call.

A world where you can’t tell whether the person on the other end of the phone is real, irrespective of whether you made or received a call is potentially frightening. Just because Google has indicated that they will introduce the caller as AI, it doesn’t mean that others will, or it will always be the case.

On top of this, if Google can achieve a high reliability rate for Duplex then I think many people should be fearing for their jobs. Any profession where making / receiving calls is a key part e.g. call centres, receptionists, PA’s etc. may no longer be required. We will also see new types of cyber-crime which harness this kind of technology. A phone call bot which can make hundreds or thousands of calls a minute to try and socially engineer people out of their money will also happen.

If you watched the video above, you will have noticed that Google didn’t demonstrate Duplex live. There are a number of understandable reasons for not demoing Duplex live and might have giving this technology a really bad introduction. It is also possible that Duplex isn’t as ready as we are lead to believe, and it will be a while before we actually see it in the real world. Perhaps the demo’s they showed were the best examples from hundreds of phone calls they made, or they were edited. Either way, Duplex (and other similar services) will happen. The impact, for better or worse, could be huge.