Should Robots Have To Identify Themselves?
If you call a fine restaurant, talk to a maitre d’, reserve a table, and later find out “he” was a souped-up version of Siri, does it really matter? You got your reservation, and probably got it more efficiently than if you had talked to a human being. Well, to some people this scenario is the stuff of nightmares. Should humans get full disclosure when they're talking to a software robot with the ability to carry on intelligent conversation? Read on...
Smart Robots on the Phone?
“Horrifying” is what Zeynep Tufekci called it in a Tweet following a demonstration of Duplex, Google’s (still unborn) souped-up Assistant, which claims the ability to converse naturally with humans. The professor of sociology and frequent contributor to the New York times went on: “Silicon Valley is ethically lost, rudderless and has not learned a thing.” She may have a point.
Google I/O, the company’s annual love-fest for software developers, was rife with demonstrations (read, “mock-ups”) of things that the uber-geek class believes are good for humankind. As one Silicon Valley wag put it, most of those things are “things your Mom will no longer do for you,” like making an appointment for a haircut. That was the demo that prompted Tufekci’s horrified Tweet.
Duplex was introduced by Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who revealed to a stunned room that “a big part of getting things done is making phone calls” to auto mechanics, to plumbers, and yes, to “even schedule a haircut appointment.” (Real haircuts do not require appointments; but then, my stylist is an old-school barber.)
Pichai earnestly assured the rapt audience of Millennial geeks that everyone in Google “is working hard to help users through those moments,” as if calling for an appointment is akin to chemotherapy.
He then shook his head over the shocking, sad fact that “even in the U. S., sixty percent of small businesses do not have an online booking system.” I must do 99% of my business with that 60% of small businesses. I guess the 40% who have online booking systems are too busy to answer my legacy phone calls for information or appointments.
“We think AI can help with this problem,” said Pichai. I think it’s good for an infant technology like AI to start with an infantile problem like this one before tackling - and perhaps massively worsening - adult problems of small businesses, like access to capital; recruiting, training, and retaining employees; and keeping afloat above a deepening sea of regulations and laws.
Pichai then explains what the audience is about to hear and see. Google Assistant is going to call a hair salon and get you an appointment for a haircut next Tuesday between 10:00 a. m. and noon.
“Here is Google Assistant actually calling a real salon to schedule an appointment for you,” declares Pichai. I’m going to come back to those words before this article ends. For now, just watch the video and form your own opinion; skip to the 1:00 mark if you’re in a hurry.
"As I Was Saying..."
Duplex was not the only example of how AI might do for you what your Mom no longer will do. Remember how she used to finish your sentences for you when you tried to talk?
Pichai also demonstrated “Smart Compose,” a feature that will help you complete emails faster and (arguably) better in Gmail. The operative buzzword here is “machine-learning.”
Gmail will learn your writing style and suggest in popup windows phrases or entire sentences that make writing a 500 word email as easy as TAB-TAB-TABing through all the suggestions, allowing them to fill your word budget with… something. Sounds like autocorrect on steroids, and we all know how well autocorrect works.
Smart Compose is rolling out now to users of free Gmail, but you must enable the new Gmail Web interface. Paying customers of G Suite for Business will get it after the initial crop of bugs are squashed.
Still in Beta?
Back to Duplex. I hope you’ve watched the video so you will understand what I am about to say.
Pichai either lied to all of Google’s fawning fans when he said, “Here is Google Assistant actually calling a real salon…”, or he took a real phone call and made it sound so fake my dog would tilt his head quizzically if he heard it. Consider the evidence:
What business answers its phone with the abrupt and peremptory, “Hello, how can I help you?” Even my gruff old barber barks, “Angel’s! How can I help you?” Both voices speak too fast and too monotonously. In fact, they are difficult to tell apart by their tones, inflections, and other vocal characteristics. It is highly unlikely that two random strangers sound that much alike. It’s as if Assistant was speaking on both sides of the call.
But let's assume it was a real, unedited conversation -- because soon it will be. What troubles some people is that AI is developing at such a rapid pace, with no oversight, and apparently little thought as to the ethics involved. With the brightest minds in robotics and computer science, and billions of dollars to throw at the problem, Google and others could be blurring the line between carbon and silicon. Surely an argument could be made that AI will help to solve human problems, but unintended consequences are sure to arise.
Is Full Disclosure Necessary?
I recently called my insurance company, and a robotic voice asked me to speak my request, assuring me that "he" would understand phrases such as "make a payment" and connect me to the right department. I was fine with that, because it was obvious that I wasn't speaking to a human.
In the Duplex demo, Google Assistant is the “end user” placing the call, and the goal is to sound like a real person. The female voice even inserts little nuances such as "Umm," "Uh," and "Mm-hmm" into the conversation to imitate a human caller. Lack of disclosure is the difference here.
Each of us can identify with the robotic caller, and perhaps secretly revel in fooling the poor human appointment-setter. But what if the roles were reversed, as in my restaurant example in the opening paragraph of this article? Would you be annoyed or amused to learn that you’d been fooled by a machine? Are smart robots that can understand and engage in human conversation a good thing, or... horrifying?
Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 16 May 2018
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