Google CEO Sundar Pichai demoed a jaw-dropping new feature today at Google I/O 2018, the tech giant's annual developer conference, that may one day come to the company's voice-activated Google Assistant: a completely natural-sounding AI that can call up a human receptionist and schedule appointments on your behalf.
It's called Google Duplex, and it is very possibly the creepiest feature ever shown off at a technology conference. Seriously, just listen to this conversation Pichai demonstrated between the Google Assistant and a real person at a real salon:
Say you want to make a haircut appointment on Tuesday morning between 10 a.m. and noon. Google Assistant makes the call seamlessly in the background for you, Pichai explained onstage.
"Hi, I'm calling to book a women's haircut for a client," the AI, a "woman" with natural-sounding human cadence, said to a human receptionist in the demo.
"Sure, give me one second," the receptionist replied.
"Mm-hmm," responded the AI, naturally, colloquially, DECEPTIVELY, as if it were a real human being.
In another example, Google Assistant called a small restaurant to book a table. Similarly, the poor woman who answered the phone had no idea she was talking to AI on the other end of the line.
"Four people? When? Today? Tonight?" the receptionist said to the AI.
"Um, next Wednesday, at 6 p.m.," said the AI, now with a male-sounding voice.
But according to CNET, the demo is simply part of an "experiment" that will roll out to a "small" number of people this summer.
CNET also said that Google refused to do a live demo with its reporter, which suggests the AI is probably still pretty imperfect — unlike the two demos Google showed off onstage.
Besides, as a newly published Google blog post stated, Duplex can only carry out natural conversations "after being deeply trained" in certain specific domains.
In these two cases, Duplex has only been trained in restaurant and hair salon bookings. It "cannot carry out general conversations," the company elaborated, and it will also experiment with "the right approach over the coming months."
When Google's AI system decides it can't complete the task autonomously, it hands it off to a human operator, the blog post said.
So no, don't expect to be unknowingly conversing with AI anytime soon.
Still, Google Duplex brings up interesting questions about whether tech companies have an ethical responsibility to disclose when they've injected natural-looking and sounding AI into ordinary human interactions.
Davey Alba is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Davey Alba at email@example.com.
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