Thursday, 17 May 2018

Google's quest to end real life human interaction

Why talk to another person when you can talk to Artificial Intelligence?

Google I/O 2018 was where Duplex was announced
At Google’s developer conference earlier this month, the tech giant announced a new feature in Google Assistant called ‘Duplex’ which will make calls to organisations and businesses on your behalf. “Hey Google, book me an appointment at the barbers” - and voilà! Google will make that very simple call that you are apparently too busy to make.

I am sceptical of this new gimmick. Ethically, Google Duplex will need to start every call by declaring that it is a bot. Legally, I don't see how this gets around the two-party consent needed in some US states for recordings to be made (as all the processing will be done on Google’s servers). And seriously, why does the voice speak with fillers like “urm” and “hmm”? Google has a lot of questions to answer.

Say what?
Even though CEO of Google Sundar Pichai says, “Duplex can understand the nuances of conversation,” I suspect the prospect of tech like this working seamlessly is still a long way off. When I was watching the keynote on YouTube (a Google company), I couldn’t help noticing that the automatically generated captions were still nonsensical drivel – proving that text-to-speech and vice-versa technology is still more of a novelty than a reliable tool.

In the demo, they got Google Assistant to call a 'real' hair salon and book an appointment. However the conversation still seemed rather simulated. I wonder how Duplex will respond to disgruntled, underpaid restaurant workers with a strong accents. Will Duplex give as good as it gets when called a “wee bint”?

Thinking about the future of this product, offloading scheduling calls that you don’t want to make to restaurants, masseuses, and alike are just the beginning. How long after the launch of Duplex will I be able to say, “Hey Google, catch-up with my best friend”? Then for it to call them; outputting extracts of my voice so it can murmur along and ask broad follow-up questions as they drone on and on about their banal endeavours in the club last night.

Tech giants like Google always appear to have altruistic intentions on the surface, however I can’t see many realistic long-term advantages of Duplex. It will only decrease actual human interaction and make the few interactions we do have with strangers more negative. What kind of message are you sending to the kabab shop or dry-cleaners if you get Duplex to call them rather than making the simple call yourself? You’re basically asking for your someone to gob in your doner meat or lose your knickers, Mrs I’m-too-important-to-deal-with-you-little-people.

I’m labouring the point here, but Google is making the large assumption that people will want to interact with bots. I know I certainly don’t. So, even though calls to businesses are often mundane, cherish these little pieces of actual human interaction whilst you can.