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Google Duplex

May 25 2018

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Google Duplex is a system that can make calls to set up appointments for you. Do you want a large thin crust margherita pizza? Or what about a hair dye on Tuesday morning? Duplex will make the call for you. It will give relevant answers to questions and interact in ways that a human would.

In a recent demo at Google’s IO conference, Google Duplex was “used” to call a salon and book a haircut. It phoned the salon and spoke in such a way as to pass the Turing test, coming across as a person booking a haircut, giving quick and on-topic answers to the questions the receptionist asked, negotiating a time that worked and even making an interjection sound of agreement when prompted.

The humorous encounter left onlookers at the conference equally entertained and astonished. This lead many to ask whether the demo was staged or fake. It would be fairly easy to do: just call up a hair salon and pretend to be a human-sounding robot. Google has been asked about this but refuses to answer them or give details such as the name of the salon. This may be to protect the company but this inevitably leads to the question of whether Google would fake something like this at a conference. It may have edited the call and only presented the most interesting or successful parts.

The demo emphasised the fact that in your daily life you need to make calls all the time. The AI programme helps people save time, and also makes the process of booking easier because often small or medium sized businesses won’t have automated booking systems.

Aside from the question of whether the demo was staged is the question of the ethical implications of a software system replacing a human interaction. Should the person on the other end of the phone be allowed to know that they’re talking to a machine? Google have confirmed that the software system would let the people being called know.

It would also let people know if the phone conversation is being recorded, which it is also able to do. But there are deeper issues of whether, since Duplex will probably work through a ‘data centre’ rather than on your personal device, there is enough protection for all parties and phone calls which would be assumed to be confidential.

Up until this point, Google has been scant on these details. Whether or not these problems are insurmountable, we’ll have to wait and see.