Just how much automation is too much?
PR pros might benefit from some robot assistance, such as an email scheduler or chatbots that can handle social media requests. Yet Google’s new smart assistant is pushing the boundaries of artificial intelligence—and that has ethics experts and business owners concerned.
Google’s new assistant was unveiled at Google’s I/O conference, showing off the ability to make phone calls to restaurants and hair salons on your behalf.
The most striking aspect? The robot sounds human.
Duplex is different from other “smart” assistants, in that the people primarily interacting with it are not aware that it is a computer. When a user asks Siri or Alexa for something, they are not surprised to get a stilted, robotic response or be totally misunderstood. But a restaurant host who gets a call from Duplex asking to make a reservation is not told that the voice belongs to a recurrent neural network built on TensorFlow Extended, or whatever. For that reason, Duplex’s speech had to sound more natural. If it were obviously a robot, the restaurant would probably just hang up.
…Filler words like “um” and “you know” are present in every language. In fact, they serve a useful function, and can help put listeners at ease. The person at the meeting becomes a bit creepy if they just state, plainly and economically, “We will hand this over Friday to ensure that everything is in order.” That’s exactly the tone that Google hopes to avoid by introducing the “umms,” self-corrections, and other oddities that characterize human speech.
Google intends the new tech to be a boon for small businesses that rely on appointments.
Businesses that rely on appointment bookings supported by Duplex, and are not yet powered by online systems, can benefit from Duplex by allowing customers to book through the Google Assistant without having to change any day-to-day practices or train employees. Using Duplex could also reduce no-shows to appointments by reminding customers about their upcoming appointments in a way that allows easy cancellation or rescheduling.
[FREE GUIDE: 3 helpful tips for your crisis comms prep]
The blog post also included several recordings of the robot assistant calling real businesses. However, these businesses are skeptical that the technology could help them.
— Nathan Sichilongo (@mynameisnado) May 8, 2018
Google’s demo is one of the most innovative, forward-looking consumer tech innovations of the year. It promises to save people the hassle of picking up the phone and going through the steps of asking for a time to come in. Instead, just click a button, specify the time, and await the followup e-mail or text.
But in the aftermath of the demo, many questions arose that Google was not willing to answer. Consumers bitterly complain about robocalls, which are rising despite regulatory vows to stop them. Doesn’t Duplex promise to usher in even more of them, albeit ones that can work for you? And is Google’s technology strong enough to really handle the transaction? What if the robot is put on hold or asked to press #5 for reservations?
“When people call us, we ask them where they want to sit, inside, outside or upstairs,” says [restaurateur Jane] Goplen. “We ask if they mind climbing the stairs. We ask if it’s a special occasion, if they know where our parking lot is.”
Jordan Belt, who works at Ziggy’s Hair L.A., a Los Angeles area hair salon, says callers to her establishment are asked a lot of questions too, about hair color and style of cut wanted. “Could the computer handle the questions?” she asks.
Others are concerned about the implications the new tech has for all kinds of business communication. They ask: Is it ethical for a robot to deceive a person into thinking they are talking to a human being?
Google Assistant making calls pretending to be human not only without disclosing that it’s a bot, but adding “ummm” and “aaah” to deceive the human on the other end with the room cheering it… horrifying. Silicon Valley is ethically lost, rudderless and has not learned a thing.
— zeynep tufekci (@zeynep) May 9, 2018
AI expert and Futurologist at Futurizon, Dr Ian Pearson, told The Sun that the impersonating of a human could see a rise in unsolicited, nuisance phone calls that the public won’t be able to tell apart from real humans.
“Recently, we’ve seen some of the huge problems caused by AI impersonating people in social media, influencing political decisions and social attitude changes,” he said.
“Moving that to voice amplifies that potential further still and we may soon see unsolicited voice calls trying to sell us products or influence attitudes, reawakening and amplifying the call centre nuisance.”
He added that using such services could also cause potential problems for business users that decide to utilise it.
Others offered tongue-in-cheek responses, such as this list of things not to use Google Assistant to do, including firing someone.
Communicators are undoubtedly on a new frontier with a vast array of decisions to make about how technology should influence communication.
The demo showed us we’re closer than ever to the world of “Her,” with a Samantha that’s close enough to feeling like a human that we have a ton of new rules about human-computer interactions to consider. Technologists frequently tout idealistic sentiments like a goal being to perfect technology such that it “gets out of the way,” to the point where you can focus on what you need to do without getting frustrated by tricky menus, required gestures and the like. But that doesn’t mean everything needs to go away — like robbing people of an understanding of what’s on the other side of the screen. Or in this case, the phone. Duplex doesn’t identify itself the way a human might — there’s a bot holding for you on line two — but maybe it should.
On Twitter, many see the development as scary.
Google Duplex is the most incredible, terrifying thing out of #IO18 so far… Example use case: Google Assistant calls a hair salon to book an appointment. The human booking the appointment has no idea she was talking to an AI. Humans quickly becoming expensive API endpoints. pic.twitter.com/qUYwZTpxAE
— Chris Messina (@chrismessina) May 8, 2018
Google Duplex: an AI that makes automated calls but speaks like a human & understands the context/nuance of conversation which allows it to adapt and pose as a human.
Do people have the right to know if they’re talking to a machine?
A serious ethics debate has to be had on this pic.twitter.com/wn1QdXuLeU
— Illimitable 🇬🇧🇺🇸 (@IllimitableMan) May 9, 2018
— Ire Aderinokun (@ireaderinokun) May 8, 2018
How do you feel about Google’s new technology? What advantages do you see for such technology in PR and corporate communications?