New human Google Assistant sparks row over point of ethics

AFP
The new Google natural-sounding robo-assistant wowed some observers, but left others fretting over the ethics of how the human-seeming software might be used. 
AFP
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Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks under a video showing singer John Legend at the Google I/O conference. 

The new Google digital assistant converses so naturally it may seem like a real person.

The unveiling of the natural-sounding robo-assistant by the tech giant this week wowed some observers, but left others fretting over the ethics of how the human-seeming software might be used. 

Google chief Sundar Pichai played a recording of the assistant independently, calling a hair salon and a restaurant to make bookings and interacting with staff, who evidently didn’t realize they were dealing with some artificial intelligence software.

Telling the Google Assistant to book a table for four at 6pm, it tends to the phone call in a human-sounding voice complete with “speech disfluencies” such as “ums” and “uhs.”

“This is what people often do when they are gathering their thoughts,” Google engineers Yaniv Leviathan and Yossi Matias said in a Duplex blog post.

Google Assistant AI enhanced with “Duplex” technology, which engages like a real person on the phone, was a surprise and star of the Internet giant’s annual developers conference in its home town of Mountain View, California.

The digital assistant was also programmed to understand when to respond quickly, such as after someone says “hello,” versus pausing as a person might before answering complex questions. 

“Our vision for our assistant is to help you get things done,” Pichai told 7,000 developers at the Google I/O conference, along with an online audience watching the presentation streamed on Tuesday.

Google will be testing the digital assistant improvement in the months ahead. 

The Duplex demonstration was quickly followed by a debate over whether people answering phones should be told when they are speaking to human-sounding software and how the technology might be abused in the form of more convincing “robocalls” by marketers or political campaigns.

“Google Duplex is the most incredible, terrifying thing out of #IO18 so far,” tweeted Chris Messina, a product designer.

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Jorge Cuadros (left) gives a demonstration of a robotic retinal camera to a reporter at the Google I/O conference in Mountain View, California. 

Google Duplex is an important development and signals an urgent need to figure out proper governance of machines that can fool people into thinking they are human, according to Kay Firth-Butterfield, head of the AI and machine learning project at the World Economic Forum’s Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

“These machines could call on behalf of political parties and make ever more convincing recommendations for voting,” Firth-Butterfield reasoned. “Will children be able to use these agents and receive calls from them?”

Digital assistants making arrangements for people also raises the question of who is responsible for mistakes, such as a no-show or cancellation fee for an appointment set for the wrong time.

At a time of online privacy concerns, there were also worries expressed about what kind of data digital assistants might collect and who gets access to it.

“My sense is that humans in general don’t mind talking to machines so long as they know they are doing so,” read a post credited to Lauren Weinstein in a chat forum below the Duplex blog post.

An array of comments on Twitter contended there was an ethical breach to not letting people know they were conversing with software.

“If you’ve grown up watching ‘Star Trek TNG’ like me then you probably considered natural voice interactions with computers a thing of the future,” read a post by Andreas Schafer in the blog chat forum. “Well, looks like the future is here.”

Android features soon — if at all. Android P won’t be released until later this year, and even then, phone manufacturers and carriers frequently limit Android updates to their newest phones. Owners of Google’s own Pixel phones will get the updates most quickly.

Samsung is being snubbed on some of these new features. Its users won’t have access to an early “beta” version of Android P. Samsung’s camera app, also won’t get a built-in Lens feature that lets Google offer information after taking a photo of a building or sign. 

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