At Google’s I/O 2018, a digital assistant called Duplex made a haircut appointment. And the call was described as “jaw dropping.”
Google just introduced us to Duplex. As your digital assistant, she or he can schedule your appointments. Duplex can call a restaurant or a hair salon. No need for you to be there because Duplex can handle it all and sound like a human.
As you heard above, the Duplex voice had a human rhythm. It said “ums” and “uhs” and hesitated at precisely the right moments. It could manage decisions. Offered a 1:15 haircut, it will say “No” if told to get one between 10 and 12.
Listeners responded to Duplex with awe and concern. They were amazed with how human the voice sounded. But that was also the problem. Yes, Duplex might be appropriate for making appointments but it also could do that weekly call to Mom or take care of the uncomfortable break-up. During a phone call, an automatic recording could at worst be illegal or just intrusive. And even for those basic appointments, we will have to decide if the scheduler should know a bot is on the other end.
Our Bottom Line: The Tradeoffs
You can see that all of this takes us to a slew of ethical and practical decisions.
For starters, the time we save and the efficiency we gain are enticing. However, we do lose intimacy and the benefits of social interaction. Furthermore, we will have to decide just how much to limit the territory that so able a digital assistant can occupy. After all, as it expands beyond the mindless practicalities, it will diminish our privacy through what it knows about us. It will also impact civility (which I very much care about) and further obscure our ability to identify what is fake.
With Duplex, Google appears to have opened a whole new world of communication that is about much more than a haircut appointment.
My sources and more: Thanks to NPR for introducing me to Duplex and emphasizing that, like driverless cars, digital assistants require ethical decisions. From there, you might enjoy the Wired Duplex podcast and then (if you have the time), do take MIT’s moral machine quiz for another set of thinking machine dilemmas.