Google’s new AI assistant can pass for a human on phone calls

In the near future, a machine can book reservations on your behalf, and the human on the other line may never realize that they are talking to a chatbot.

This is the new frontier of machine learning that Google unveiled at its I/O conference on Tuesday. In the demo, CEO Sundar Pichai played back phone call recordings of actual conversations between Google Assistants and seemingly unsuspecting employees at a hair salon and at a restaurant.

Called Google Duplex, Google Assistant’s new artificially intelligent system does not sound robotic. There are no beep beeps or metallic echoes. It sounds just like us. In the demo, Duplex interjects its requests to book a restaurant reservation and a haircut appointment successfully with lifelike “mhhmmm” and “uh-huh.”

“The amazing thing is that Assistant can actually understand the nuances of conversation,” Pichai said in the demo.

Google Duplex sounds just like a human assistant — is that a good thing?

In a blog post explaining the technology, Google said making Assistant sound human is the goal.

“The Google Duplex technology is built to sound natural, to make the conversation experience comfortable,” the post states. “It’s important to us that users and businesses have a good experience with this service, and transparency is a key part of that. We want to be clear about the intent of the call so businesses understand the context.”

But even though Google said the experience is meant to make the experience comfortable, the ethical question being raised is: For whom is the comfort intended?

Does it feel comfortable for customer service representatives to not know if they are communicating with a machine? Or, is that too intimate and invasive? Can it be easier for us to abuse a customer service representative’s time when a machine is the one who can make the nitpicky request, and can call back repeatedly beyond the threshold of human social propriety? (Google has not been clear as to whether or not the AI assistant will identify itself as a robot.)

It is easy to see the convenience value being added for businesses and clients who want to offload the tedious work of scheduling to a machine. It is less easy to see the value being added for the salon receptionists and cashiers on the other line.

In its blog post, Google touts Duplex as a public good, because it can “address accessibility and language barriers.” Instead of worrying how to pronounce a foreign entree for takeout, you can ask Duplex to handle the call for you, the thinking goes.

“Instead of making a phone call, the user simply interacts with the Google Assistant, and the call happens completely in the background without any user involvement,” Google says.

Time will tell which kind of science fiction story we are in. Google said it plans to start testing Duplex more in the wild soon.

“This summer, we’ll start testing the Duplex technology within the Google Assistant, to help users make restaurant reservations, schedule hair salon appointments, and get holiday hours over the phone,” the company promised.