Humanoid Google Duplex AI Sparks Ethics Debate, Will Now Identify Itself On Calls


Much has been made about Google’s recent demonstration of Duplex, basically an advanced and realistic sounding chatbot that is capable of impersonating a real assistant by calling places like hair salons and booking appointments for the user. To the person on the other end of the line, it sounds like they’re talking to a flesh and blood person, not an AI scheme. It’s so realistic that some have called into questions the ethics of it all, and so Google is now promising full transparency.

More to the point, Google says the developers of Duplex will “make sure the system is appropriately identified,” and are also “designing this feature with disclosure built-in.”

That design philosophy wasn’t obvious at Google I/O, where Google played back a couple of actual calls made by Duplex. One was to book an appointment at a hair salon and the other was an attempt to make reservations at a restaurant. In both cases, Duplex never disclosed its artificial intelligent DNA, and even casually threw in utterances like “umm” and “mm-hmm” to sound like a real human. And it was effective—the callers on the other end of the line seemed to think they were talking to a person, not a sophisticated chatbot.

According to Google, that was just to demonstrate how advanced the technology is. However, the final product will be different.

“We understand and value the discussion around Google Duplex—as we’ve said from the beginning, transparency in the technology is important. We are designing this feature with disclosure built-in, and we’ll make sure the system is appropriately identified. What we showed at I/O was an early technology demo, and we look forward to incorporating feedback as we develop this into a product,” Google said in a statement.

Even though it wasn’t brought up at Google I/O, the company knew Duplex would spark a conversation about AI ethics. As such, Google CEO Sundar Pichai attempted to get ahead of the debate with a blog post that touched on the topic before the event (and demonstration) took place.

“It’s clear that technology can be a positive force and improve the quality of life for billions of people around the world. But it’s equally clear that we can’t just be wide-eyed about what we create. There are very real and important questions being raised about the impact of technology and the role it will play in our lives,” Sundar wrote. “We know the path ahead needs to be navigated carefully and deliberately—and we feel a deep sense of responsibility to get this right. It’s in that spirit that we’re approaching our core mission.”

Supposed insiders at Google also told Business Insider that the final release of Duplex may not be as realistic or impressive as what was demonstrated at Google I/O. If true, that would be a shame—we already have digital assistants that are discernible from actual humans. Duplex is a better scheme, and if there is full transparency during calls that it’s a chatbot, not a human, then there shouldn’t be much to get up in arms about.

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