Feature Story

Who’s calling—a bot or a human?

by Stephanie Chan

Who's calling—a bot or a human?

Google's new AI takes us closer to a robot voice that is indistinguishable from a human's.

This week at Google's big conference, Google I/O, the tech giant unveiled a demonstration of the Google Assistant booking a haircut over the phone. To much of the audience's surprise, the bot sounded a lot like a real person—with human-like pauses and ticks. This feature, called Duplex, can only be used in exchanges that are functional and in "closed domains". This means Duplex could work perfectly with something like making reservations.

The Network writer Jason Deign saw this robot-calling phenomenon coming last year in his piece "Could a robot fool you on the phone?" Deign spoke with A Dangerous Master author Wendall Wallach who says that we may soon need a signal from bots to tell us that they're not human.

Other publications have also noted this possible struggle—The Verge wondering if Google has an obligation to tell people they are indeed talking to a machine. The fear of a robot fooling people into thinking it is a human raises many ethical implications. Forbes notes that this kind of technology must include checks and balances, and Deign agrees, stating that the right kinds of protection need to be in place. 

Laurence Cruz writes in "Robots among us" that experts are still struggling with the questions of ethics in AI. In a recent panel at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, robotics and automation makers joined to discuss the issue of whether robotics should emulate humans. Some panelists argued that not all robotics need to be anthropomorphized to complete their tasks.

The panel seemed to agree that ethics in AI are vastly complex. Head of Spin Master's Electronic Development Chris Hardouin says that there will be "scalable ethics" in AI.

One thing to note is that outside of these "closed domains," the Duplex AI might not work very well with hard-to-understand dialogue. But, the feature can still ask questions made to prompt callers to elaborate. As Google is still calling Duplex an "experiment," we'll have to see where the feature will go in the future. Should companies let callers know they are talking to a robot, and will they? And what is there to do if you're not sure if you're talking to a machine? Perhaps venture outside of the "closed domain" and try an out-of-place line.

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