Google’s most futuristic product, Duplex, is drawing heavy criticism from those who question the ethics of placing robots in conversations with humans, without the other parties realizing it.
Google previewed Duplex at its I/O Developer conference on Tuesday (May 8), showing off the experimental service that lets its voice-based digital assistant connect consumers with local businesses.
During the demo, Google Assistant booked an appointment at a hair salon, even using the “ums” and “hmms” pauses of human speech. In another demo, it called a restaurant employee to make a reservation.
Mark Sullivan, director of demand generation at CallRail, said Duplex is a natural progression for Google: “Google, for instance, wants to make our lives easier, and Duplex is just another way they are doing this.”
But according to Bloomberg, critics are understandably worried about the ramifications of robots interacting with humans without the person knowing who (or what) he’s actually speaking to.
“Horrifying,” Zeynep Tufekci, a professor and frequent tech company critic, wrote on Twitter about Duplex. “Silicon Valley is ethically lost, rudderless and has not learned a thing.”
And Stewart Brand, an author who advocates for long-term thinking and responsibility in the face of advancing technology and other trends, noted that robotic voices should always sound “synthetic” rather than human.
“Successful spoofing of any kind destroys trust,” he said.
Scott Huffman, an executive on Google’s Assistant team, noted that the problem could be solved by the machine saying something like, “I’m the Google Assistant and I’m calling for a client.” He said more experiments are planned for this summer.
However, another Google employee disagreed: “We don’t want to pretend to be a human,” designer Ryan Germick said.
Germick did agree that Google’s aim was to make the assistant human enough to keep users engaged so that they keep asking questions and sharing information with the company.