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Google’s Phone Robot Is ‘Not Trying to Trick People,’ But It Is Going to Change Work

When Google first demonstrated Duplex, an AI system that makes phone calls on your behalf while sounding freakishly like a person, the oh-my-God-we’re-living-in-a-dystopia backlash came almost immediately. Mostly because when the robot placed — though it was unclear if the demo was actually real at all — a call from the stage at Google’s I/O developer conference, it never said anything like Hey, I’m a robot. You are talking to a robot. A robot that works for Google and is going to record this call. Now, as Google begins to test Duplex with limited number of businesses this summer, the company says the AI will disclose itself as such at the start of every call.

In a demonstration in a Thai restaurant on the Upper East Side earlier this week, Google Duplex started each call by identifying itself as a non-human. “Hi. I’m calling to make a reservation. I’m Google’s automated booking service so I’ll record the call.” (If someone doesn’t want to be recorded, they can say so and the call will end.) Google is currently only working with a small set of businesses and users focusing on a limited test case: users calling and asking about a holiday and weekend hours at a particular business. Google also plans to work with a test group on making reservations and appointments later this summer.

As for the why the I/O demo did not include a disclosure, Nick Fox, VP of product and design for Google Assistant, said the company “did not include the disclosure because we thought of it more as a technical demo.” (Sure, Jan.) He also said the company has been working on the disclosure “since the very beginning of the project.” The New York demo spent a lot of time emphasizing how Google wants “to make sure AI is used for good.” (Here the Duplex team repeatedly pointed to Google’s new list of AI principles.) Fox mentioned the disclosure is subject to change, but some iteration will always remain. He also noted businesses, if and when Duplex is scaled up, will be given the option to opt out. (Duplex currently integrates with OpenTable, so if you try to book somewhere that uses OpenTable Duplex will just book through that.)

While testing Duplex, Google said it found that four out of every five calls can be handled completely automatically. Fox also said that it’s “highly unlikely we’ll get to a point where it’s entirely AI operated.” Instead, human operators remain an important part of keeping Duplex running smoothly, like jumping into phone conversations if a restaurant asks for intel the robot doesn’t have. (Fox didn’t say whether those operators would be Google staff or contractors, only that the company has operator centers around the world.)

Another thing Google got dinged for at I/O was how human Duplex sounds. Listening to it on Monday I was again struck by how much, if you didn’t know it was a robot and you were, say, covering the reservation book in a loud restaurant, you probably wouldn’t know you were talking to a bot. Which is to say I am both freaked out and impressed by Duplex. Scott Huffman, vice-president of engineering for Google Assistant, talked about how adding pauses and having the bot say “um” and “ah” like it’s a person helps yield more successful results and fewer hangups from restaurants.

“We’re not trying to trick people,” Huffman said, after playing an early stages call from Duplex which included a very robotic-sounding British voice. “It [early Duplex] didn’t sound natural. The end result was it didn’t work.” I assumed, wrongly, that early tests would have involved Duplex “calling” a Google employee pretending to be a restaurant host. Turns out, Google tested on real restaurants. “Whenever we could early in the system the team went and had dinner [using the Duplex reservation],” Huffman said. “Where we couldn’t do that we made reservations way in advance and canceled them.” He said the team had a “tight policy about not calling the same places.” Still, there is a decent squick factor there, given Google’s apparent previous lack of disclosure.

At one point during the demo, the product manager placing a Duplex call asked us if anybody worked a phone as a job in college. I nodded, having spent four years answering the phone in an admissions office where effectively every call involved me repeating our daily tour schedule and taking personal information to book interviews. I think the product manager asked because Google Duplex would, in theory, have streamlined that job. Duplex, as Google wants to make very clear, is only capable of a few skills. It is only programmed to complete the task at hand, like booking your appointment, and then get off the line. Which, okay, might be quicker — assuming the bot understands your every word and you its — but it also would have made my job a hell of a lot more boring and impersonal. I liked talking with humans on the other end of the line. I liked being able to recognize their voices and names and say hello when they’d come in for the tours and interviews I’d helped schedule. I liked making the same Oh, sorry the building is going through a tunnel right now I didn’t hear you jokes whenever the ambient noise got too loud for me to hear what those humans were saying. I wouldn’t have minded, necessarily, to deal with an army of robots. But at the very least Google should give them a sense of humor.

Google’s Phone Robot Is ‘Not Trying to Trick People’