Human-Sounding Google Robot Assistant Sparks Ethics Questions


The new Google digital assistant which converses so naturally that it seems like a real person has raised brows. 

The unveiling of the natural-sounding robo-assistant by the technology 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 Google Assistant independently calling a hair salon and a restaurant to make bookings — interacting with staff who evidently didn’t realize they were dealing with artificial intelligence software, rather than a real customer.

Tell the Google Assistant to book a table for four at 6:00 pm, 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 artificial intelligence enhanced with “Duplex” technology that let it engage like a real person on the phone was a surprise and, for some unsettling, star of the internet giant’s annual developers conference this week 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.

Google pitched the enhanced assistant as a potential boon to busy people and small businesses which lack websites customers can use to make appointments.

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

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


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