From a standpoint of pure technological ingenuity, the most memorable section of yesterday’s keynote at Google’s I/O conference was the unveiling of Duplex, an AI service that can place phone calls and converse with a human on the other end. Starting this summer, Google plans to use it to let its Google Assistant handle mundane tasks such as making a haircut appointment or inquiring about a business’s holiday hours. Judging from the two real calls replayed on the I/O stage, it could be one of the most eerily human feats a computer has ever accomplished.
The recordings gave no evidence that the small-business employees on the other end of the line caught wise to the fact they were conversing with a machine. I probably wouldn’t have either. And once I was done being dazzled, I began to wonder: Will Duplex begin its calls by disclosing that it’s a computer-generated service? If it doesn’t, it seems to me, the whole useful idea takes on an unfortunate tinge of trickery.
Google’s blog post on Duplex explains how its creators made the technology sound so natural, including the fact that it inserts “hmms” and “uh”s into its synthesized speech. But it doesn’t answer the question of disclosure. So I emailed a Google representative, who repeated a portion of the blog post:
It’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. We’ll be experimenting with the right approach over the coming months.
When I asked for clarification about whether that meant Duplex will definitely identify itself as a bot, the rep repeated the last sentence of that statement. That falls short of an unequivocal “yes,” which strikes me as the only acceptable answer.
At the start of the I/O keynote, Google CEO Sundar Pichai expressed an obligatory self-aware sentiment about the company’s new technologies and their impact on society. “We know the path ahead needs to be navigated carefully and deliberately,” he said. “And we feel a deep sense of responsibility to get this right.” That’s the proper attitude—and Duplex’s launch will provide an opportunity to show Google takes its responsibility seriously.