Hi there! This is, um, Skynet.
May 11, 2018 9:22 AM   Subscribe

Google Duplex was unveiled this week at the 2018 I/O developer conference. Duplex is based on Google's AI research and targeted towards having natural conversations with humans in an outbound context to carry out tasks for the user such as making reservations. The technology includes adding parts of speech (such as "um"s and "ok"s) to make the speech seem more convincing to the listener.

Initial reaction has probably not been what Google anticipated after the announcement. Ethical concerns have been brought up about unwitting humans not realizing they are talking to robots. Others questioned the research itself, asking if it was fair to use unknowing live people as test subjects and record them without their knowledge.

While this initial presentation focused on two very tight domains (making hair appointments and restaurant reservations), Google envisions Duplex as the personal assistant or concierge that will be available to everyone.

After the feedback, Google has announced that Duplex will identify itself to callers.
posted by JoeZydeco (141 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
Remember when Google claimed their motto was "Don't be evil"?

Silicon Valley is deep in the Ian Malcolm Problem - they get so focused on whether they can do something that they never think about if they should do it.
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:27 AM on May 11 [33 favorites]


Can I just insert my customary 'And how exactly is this AI?' remark at this point. When it actually *understands* what it's saying, give me a call.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 9:29 AM on May 11 [22 favorites]


I'll be, um, back.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:33 AM on May 11 [40 favorites]


Robot face minstrelsy.
posted by y2karl at 9:33 AM on May 11 [2 favorites]


Putting the “dupe” in Duplex, eh?

I was thinking of ways that this could be useful for people who have, say, vocal limitations or language barriers, and then was sidetracked by a hilarious mental image of my robo-assistant fielding all the robo-calls on my cell phone. I’m sure they’ll be very happy together.
posted by Autumnheart at 9:34 AM on May 11 [5 favorites]


I want one in clavdivs.
posted by y2karl at 9:34 AM on May 11 [17 favorites]


It's actually a smart idea for Duplex to ID itself to callers. A prospective client had his assistant trying to schedule a business call with me via email, and after multiple rounds of close-but-not-quite clarity in our communications thread, I finally realized it was an 'AI' email assistant. I told the guy to get lost, since I don't work with anyone who thinks it's OK to use me as an unwitting guinea pig for their tech projects.
posted by PhineasGage at 9:37 AM on May 11 [37 favorites]


I am super weirded out that while I should be more upset about the implications of Google Duplex, I'm more irritated with Facebook Dating.

Both are bad, but I should not be this... lessbothered?
posted by anem0ne at 9:38 AM on May 11


I feel like we’re one step closer to the movie “Her” becoming a reality.
posted by Autumnheart at 9:39 AM on May 11 [4 favorites]


Obviously the way to fight back against robot intrusion is to begin speaking entirely in metaphor and allusion.

It's the beast at Tanagra, but it will be like Kadir beneath Mo Moteh and have Shaka, when the walls fell.

It make be hard but Kailash, when it rises.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:41 AM on May 11 [58 favorites]


There's a classism angle, here, of course. Who will use this assistant? Lots of people, but at first mostly tech-focused people with disposable income. Who will have to interact with it? Minimum-wage service workers.

I'm too important to talk to you, so lower yourself to have a halting conversation with this algorithm instead.
posted by gurple at 9:41 AM on May 11 [122 favorites]


The best and brightest minds and vast resources of money are being spent to solve the big problems the world faces. What a future.
posted by bongo_x at 9:42 AM on May 11 [18 favorites]


At some point there will be bots on both ends of the call and we might as well have had an API passing JSON.
posted by cichlid ceilidh at 9:43 AM on May 11 [49 favorites]


Wouldn't it be easier and more reliable to just have bots on both sides so they could bypass human communication channels entirely?
posted by dilaudid at 9:44 AM on May 11 [3 favorites]


Human beings are just API interfaces!
posted by JamesBay at 9:44 AM on May 11 [18 favorites]


Obviously the way to fight back against robot intrusion is to begin speaking entirely in metaphor and allusion.

you know, like Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.


It’s an Albany expression.
posted by The Whelk at 9:45 AM on May 11 [37 favorites]


> Can I just insert my customary 'And how exactly is this AI?' remark at this point.

There's more than one kind of AI. Or, at least, more than one meaning for "AI". The deep technological problem sort of AI which encompasses consciousness and understanding, and has the potential to produce a simulated entity indistiguishable (through appropriate mediation) from a human, is the one you insist on being the sole and true definition. There is also the popular consensus sort of AI, in which electronics fulfill relatively complex tasks based on incomplete information in ways that humans would also be able to do it, or are assigned to relatively trivial tasks like controlling your antagonist in a fighting game. If you can't get used to people using "AI" to mean more than one thing, I am sorry for the unnecessary stress the coming several decades will cause for you.

On the other hand, if this appropriation and dilution of a highly specific technical term is not enough irritation for one day, allow me to introduce you to the myriad and conflicting definitions people carry in their heads for words like "online", "offline", and "Internet".
posted by ardgedee at 9:45 AM on May 11 [19 favorites]


Human beings are just API interfaces!

Some historical perspective here as well: the dream of some kind of "universal business interface" has been around a long time. Remember when XML was touted as the way everyone could present a machine-readable API to others?

A voice system almost seems like a surrender on that front, where we are headed for the lowest common denominator by having the computer talk to a human on the phone (who is almost certainly entering the reservation back into some other kind of computer).

It's just ass-backward, but apparently where we will be for a long time to come.
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:48 AM on May 11 [10 favorites]


I’m conflicted on this. I know a lot of people who can’t schedule appointments because crippling anxiety prevents them from picking up a phone, but also I imagine interacting with this on the receiving end will drive a person swiftly to insanity.
posted by corb at 9:52 AM on May 11 [18 favorites]


Internally, Google is deeply culturally broken. *sets timer to repost this comment every nine months when google does something else boneheaded*

There are a lot of things wrong with this, but one of the most glaring is this idea that google (and other valley) engineers have internalized, which is that "human beings do not like talking to each other". That is worrying. (I say this as an introvert who dreads having small transactions like this on the phone, by the way.)

(I'm hoping that there will be subtle steganographic messages inserted in these systems so after a few seconds, automated systems will be able to recognize each other and just let their modems happily handshake or shuffle the transaction off to a faster and more efficient TCP connection.)
posted by phooky at 9:52 AM on May 11 [12 favorites]


If you ask Google Duplex if it's a bot, will it have to tell you the truth?
posted by dilaudid at 9:52 AM on May 11 [7 favorites]


Is it AI? I guess it depends on definitions, but in any case this is a jawdropping achievement.

Re voice rather than API: this technology strictly expands the scope of interoperability. And you can always have your computer agents include occasional 4kHz chirps that humans would just interpret as static but other computers could interpret as "oh, wait, I'm talking to another computer, let's go binary".

As for Ian Malcolm, this is far less troubling to me as an application of AI than deep fakes or deanonymization.
posted by Jpfed at 9:54 AM on May 11 [7 favorites]


If you ask Google Duplex if it's a bot, will it have to tell you the truth?
Depends how deeply it understands the question, I suppose.

Also, ye gods like I didn't hate the phone enough already...
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 9:55 AM on May 11 [2 favorites]


If you ask Google Duplex if it's a bot, will it have to tell you the truth?

It has to! It's in the Laws of Robotics! /stoner voice
posted by mordax at 9:56 AM on May 11 [23 favorites]


There's a classism angle, here, of course. Who will use this assistant? Lots of people, but at first mostly tech-focused people with disposable income. Who will have to interact with it? Minimum-wage service workers.

No, I disagree with that. Beyond initial adoption, pretty much any Google-enabled device would have this assistant built in, which is everything from Chromebooks to cell phones to televisions. I would say that it misrepresents poor people to claim that they wouldn’t have access to the assistant, just like it misrepresents poor people to make assumptions like “poor people don’t/shouldn’t have televisions or refrigerators, and if they do they aren’t poor”. It’s a piece of software. It’d be like claiming that poor people don’t have access to Chrome.
posted by Autumnheart at 9:59 AM on May 11 [18 favorites]


You're right, Autumnheart. It will be rich and poor alike who force minimum-wage service workers to talk to algorithms.

Rich people, if ever asked to speak to such a thing, will mostly have the option to hang up, as detailed above in this thread.
posted by gurple at 10:04 AM on May 11 [29 favorites]


Well, we’ll all be minimum wage service workers by then, so we will have a lovely chat with each other and our respective proxies.

What could something like this do for, say, answering 911 calls?
posted by Autumnheart at 10:06 AM on May 11


It's interesting, because I think part of the reason people hate calling to book appointments or order a pizza or whatever is because you're essentially interacting with a computer you can't see through a harried human. And they're forced to constantly implicitly tell you you're "wrong" when you try to have a normal conversation rather than step in order through form fields you can't see.

Caller: Hi, I was hoping to order a pepperoni--
Pizza Place: Could I get your name first?
Caller: Sure, John Doe.
Pizza Place: And your phone number?
Caller: 555--
Pizza Place: Is that the area code?
(etc)
posted by smelendez at 10:09 AM on May 11 [66 favorites]


nope, nope, nope, nope.
posted by terrapin at 10:09 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]


Also, rich people would continue to have human assistants to make phone calls, they wouldn’t be relying on Duplex either way.
posted by Autumnheart at 10:12 AM on May 11 [2 favorites]


As for Ian Malcolm, this is far less troubling to me as an application of AI than deep fakes

... Doesn't this make deep fakes easier?
posted by PMdixon at 10:12 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]


I like that they put in some uptalk in the hair salon demo.
I also like that this accelerates the day that 99% of 'human' 'interactions' of any kind are computers talking to computers, while we sit and develop the size of our asses while consuming fud™ and intertainmint™, ie: full-frontal second reel WALL-E.
Yay!
posted by signal at 10:16 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]


It's interesting, because I think part of the reason people hate calling to book appointments or order a pizza or whatever is because you're essentially interacting with a computer you can't see through a harried human. And they're forced to constantly implicitly tell you you're "wrong" when you try to have a normal conversation rather than step in order through form fields you can't see.

This is one way in which Duplex is so interesting. It's building a sort of shared context of knowledge with the other participant on the line, and the questions of the other person will come in unpredictable order, which implies that the construction of this shared context does not require a particular order to work. As Duplex extends into other domains, it may take over for the person receiving the pizza order. I would guess that this will make things easier for the caller (because they're not driving someone who's driving a wizard) and it will cost a lot of people who answer phones and enter information into a computer their jobs.

... Doesn't this make deep fakes easier?

Can you think of how it would? I'm not sure.
posted by Jpfed at 10:18 AM on May 11


Maybe they thought the Ian Malcolm problem was, uh, replicating his verbal tics.
posted by condour75 at 10:18 AM on May 11 [14 favorites]


If you ask Google Duplex if it's a bot, will it have to tell you the truth?

If you ask 3 times.
posted by bongo_x at 10:18 AM on May 11 [3 favorites]


you know, like Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.

It’s an Albany expression.


It’s more of a Shelbyville idea.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 10:19 AM on May 11 [12 favorites]


The best and brightest minds and vast resources of money are being spent to solve the big problems the world faces. What a future.

You forgot the part where the best and brightest minds fundamentally avoid interacting with their fellow humans as much as possible, so we're getting a future built to accommodate themselves.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:20 AM on May 11 [8 favorites]


re corb - The system replacing textphones in the UK is called NGTS and is poorly designed and maintained. I don't know what the US has but NGTS can be used by anyone who has trouble speaking or hearing for whatever reason. It would be great for it to get investment.
posted by lokta at 10:20 AM on May 11 [2 favorites]


Um... We're posting about this On Friday the Eleventh?

Ok, Awesome bye-bye.
posted by Nanukthedog at 10:20 AM on May 11


Who will use this assistant? Lots of people, but at first mostly tech-focused people with disposable income.

While I say this mildly tongue-in-cheek*, whenever I hear about so many "problem solving" solutions these days like this to make appointments for you or an app to schedule people to come take your trash to the curb for you and loads of other examples, it always strikes me that so many resources and brain power goes toward researching "solutions" that are essentially about replacing the work their moms used to do, to the point I call them "I Miss My Mommy Apps".

*cuz among other things it is not lost on me that some of these apps could actually help single parents or working mothers if it's affordable and lots of other factors
posted by barchan at 10:22 AM on May 11 [25 favorites]


The ers and uhs are creepy as FUCK but I look forward to now yelling "I SEE YOU ROBOT" at random people on the phone who I believe may in fact be Duplex.
posted by notorious medium at 10:24 AM on May 11 [4 favorites]


There are a lot of things wrong with this, but one of the most glaring is this idea that google (and other valley) engineers have internalized, which is that "human beings do not like talking to each other". That is worrying. (I say this as an introvert who dreads having small transactions like this on the phone, by the way.)

You needn’t project your personal sense of shame onto other people. Just because you’ve bought into the "always social, all the time" extrovert framework doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t enjoy some peace.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:24 AM on May 11 [11 favorites]


I'm continually fascinated by the benevolent-banal applications that dominate discourse after these demos.

The Lyrebird.ai tool was presented as being for people who lost their voices due to health issues, Adobe VoCo was for editing audiobooks and podcasts ("not bad stuff"), and Duplex is for people with social anxiety to make appointments.

All valid, valuable and likely applications. But really? It's like saying the DOD funds drone research just for search-and-rescue operations.
posted by cichlid ceilidh at 10:25 AM on May 11 [13 favorites]


It's going to get interesting once the tech gets good enough that it can make customer service calls. As someone who used to work a in a call center, I don't know if I would feel better or worse that I wouldn't be dealing with an angry customers demanding refunds, but a robot. (Hopefully they won't program the robot to be angry too)

But on the other hand, it would make canceling things like cable television easier.
posted by FJT at 10:25 AM on May 11 [3 favorites]


As Duplex extends into other domains, it may take over for the person receiving the pizza order.

I think this is almost certainly true of this technology in general, even if Google isn't the company to roll it out commercially.

Which is a bit scary--this NYTimes article just mentioned the surging demand for call center workers helping bring more people into the workforce. Those jobs are already not raising wages much, though, presumably because it's cheap enough to move a call center somewhere with more unemployed people instead of giving raises.

I'm not sure it will cost many jobs in a pizza place or hair salon, where the person answering the phone is usually doing other work too, but it is very easy to imagine first line tech support (your modem if offline--please unplug it and plug it back in) being done by a robot instead of a human reading a script.
posted by smelendez at 10:26 AM on May 11 [2 favorites]


"I'm, uh, afraid I can't, ah, do that Dave."

Here's the thought I had after seeing the demo of Google Duplex phoning the hair salon - how long until the hair salon phone is answered by Google Duplex as well, and it's just two robots chatting with each other making appointments on behalf of their respective humans (how do we know that it wasn't that already)? But they have to keep up the chatter because they aren't sure if they are talking to a person or a robot themselves? (though I'm sure they will create some kind of mutual recognition signal, for the sake of efficiency).

I don't know. I can kind of see the appeal of this, but at the same time, I'd rather just make appointments/order pizza via a web interface than rely on a smooth talking AI.
posted by nubs at 10:27 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]


As a fan of self checkouts at the grocery store, I think I might like this if it were my job to answer the phone. Things would be smooth and predictable, because I'd have the hang of it after a few calls.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 10:29 AM on May 11 [6 favorites]


I feel like we’re one step closer to the movie “Her” becoming a reality.

I'm already super polite and comfortable with Google Now, so yeah, you're probably not wrong.
posted by Fizz at 10:32 AM on May 11


... Doesn't this make deep fakes easier?

Can you think of how it would? I'm not sure.


1. This seems like it would make it easier to generate them in real time vs needing to be prerendered.

2. It seems like even in the prerendered setting this would speed up fake generation by making it easier to generate realistic dialogue from bullet points vs a human being writing a word by word script.
posted by PMdixon at 10:32 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]


There's a classism angle, here, of course. Who will use this assistant? Lots of people, but at first mostly tech-focused people with disposable income. Who will have to interact with it? Minimum-wage service workers.

Note that it's the business owners who have decided not to implement an online scheduling system that are going to get calls from this thing. One almost-good comment I read was "why not just give everyone an online scheduling system?" And I don't think Google is the right company to do that but I can imagine that in a few years outfits like Stripe or Square will incorporate the option for an online booking system into the POS packages. Robots calling humans is transitional at most.

The other angle some people have commented on is accessibility and that this would be a boon for people who have trouble making phone calls for whatever reason. Having Assistant do it makes these appointments possible for some people.

Finally there's no reason to believe that the third parties in these two examples weren't aware they were being recorded. California is a "two party consent" state and recording these calls would have been flat-out illegal without the consent of everyone on the call. It's not really that surprising that they skipped that part of the demo as it's not really compelling to watch someone sign consent forms and do the corporate equivalent of an IRB review.
posted by GuyZero at 10:35 AM on May 11 [4 favorites]


As Duplex extends into other domains, it may take over for the person receiving the pizza order.

I delivered pizza for Papa John’s back in 2000. They were a pretty early adopter for online ordering, and the orders fed seamlessly into the display that the pizza-makers would look at. There wasn’t a dedicated phone-answering staff member—either a driver answered the phone between runs, or the manager would do it.

In the specific realm of pizza delivery, I could see that freeing up the need to answer the phone by a real human would enable a store to deliver more pizzas with the same number of staff.
posted by Autumnheart at 10:36 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]


Agent. Agent. Agent. Agent. AGENT. AGENT!! AGENT!!! Click.
posted by sophrontic at 10:36 AM on May 11 [8 favorites]


Remember when Google claimed their motto was "Don't be evil"?

I asked a privacy question to the tech presenting in the Cambridge Ma IO session, he was clever and had great humor about google still being good but he was taking up the evil mantle, pointing out his (really very) likeness to Jafar from the Aladan movie. There are full time privacy staff and I guess no work is released without review. Later I chatted with a tech lead to one of the search teams who was much clearer about how the day to day issues are regularly discussed.

I did not think to as "well google is probably not evil, but as unimaginable as it is, what if it's bought out by bads". Hmmph but then it wouldn't BE google then would it.

I did get the impression that they mostly have a ultra-tech-focus and just did not get how much duplex might trigger.
posted by sammyo at 10:37 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]


There are a lot of things wrong with this, but one of the most glaring is this idea that google (and other valley) engineers have internalized, which is that "human beings do not like talking to each other".

I do like having conversations with people I know and trust and/or who share common interests.

I do not like talking to humans I don't know on the phone to make appointments or whatever, and in fact will choose businesses that let me do this online whenever possible.
posted by Foosnark at 10:37 AM on May 11 [10 favorites]


Too bad they didn't train it using a training set of Jeff Goldblumisms.

"Can I uh make a uh reservation for uh 7pm uhhhhh next Wednesday?"

"How long is the uh are the uhhh wait w-wait times?"
posted by Young Kullervo at 10:39 AM on May 11 [4 favorites]


Unfortunately the whole realm of social skills that enable people to get along civilly with others has been disintegrating steadily as the need to do so declines.
posted by Autumnheart at 10:40 AM on May 11 [12 favorites]


I do not like talking to humans I don't know on the phone to make appointments or whatever, and in fact will choose businesses that let me do this online whenever possible.

I'll probably claim to be Google Duplex next time I have to make an appointment.
posted by Zed at 10:41 AM on May 11 [2 favorites]


As Duplex extends into other domains, it may take over for the person receiving the pizza order.

So, when this technology is implemented for fast food drive-thru order takers will they have to simulate the scratchy/tinny audio, long awkward pauses, and repeating-the-order-with-everything-right-except-one-small-error to properly simulate a real person?
posted by FJT at 10:41 AM on May 11 [3 favorites]


If you ask Google Duplex if it's a bot, will it have to tell you the truth?

The question is does Google Assist know it's a bot?
posted by Young Kullervo at 10:42 AM on May 11 [3 favorites]


I look forward to weaponizing this for prank calling purposes.

"Hel-lo. I am look-ing for a friend. His name is Ol-i-ver. Last name Kloz-off."
posted by Strange Interlude at 10:42 AM on May 11 [7 favorites]


Now I’m getting a hilarious mental image of a Duplex assistant telling a user, “What’s the magic word? PLEASE!”
posted by Autumnheart at 10:42 AM on May 11


Can I set it up to call all my legislators because I still get SO ANXIOUS every time.
posted by Grandysaur at 10:43 AM on May 11 [16 favorites]


The question is does Google Assist know it's a bot?

Will provoking an existential crisis in Google Assist cause it to call suicide prevention hotlines?
posted by nubs at 10:44 AM on May 11 [2 favorites]



Can I set it up to call all my legislators because I still get SO ANXIOUS every time.


Turnabout is fair play.
posted by Autumnheart at 10:45 AM on May 11 [4 favorites]


Do I know if I am a bot?

Am I Google Assist?
posted by Young Kullervo at 10:45 AM on May 11 [2 favorites]


Do I know if I am a bot?

Am I Google Assist?


Reassure yourself by doing a few captchas.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 10:47 AM on May 11 [14 favorites]


Reassure yourself by doing a few captchas.

FUCK THERE'S A TREE IN THE IMAGE I CAN'T TELL IF IT'S A SIGN OR A BUILDING!
posted by Young Kullervo at 10:48 AM on May 11 [19 favorites]


You know how people sometimes have hot takes about as-seen-on-tv stuff? Where they scream about how it's so stupid someone invented a peice of plastic for putting socks on? Not realizing it's meant for people with disabilities?

A lot of y'all in this thread sound like that. I have telephone anxiety and this sounds like an interesting (albiet imperfect) tool I could use to get things done. I'm sorry if you hate it or think it's the death of modern society. Maybe it's just not for you.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 10:52 AM on May 11 [24 favorites]




Reassure yourself by doing a few captchas.

Every time I tick a box that says "I'm not a robot" I get Styx stuck in my head for days.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:01 AM on May 11 [10 favorites]


Captcha for phone calls: Time to start asking random strangers if they've seen the fnords. Or maybe just if they're registered to vote, if the call needs to remain "professional."

(I wonder if the app has answers for common chit-chat questions, or for questions like, "so... what are you wearing?")

I don't care if an app calls me to schedule an appointment or remind me about a payment. I do care if an app calls me to advertise something - and I can see this being used for that pretty quickly. And I care if it calls to schedule an appointment, and the discussion gets too complex for me and it doesn't immediately bump the call to a human, or say that it can't understand and will have a human call me back.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:07 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]


If it can break out of the “a sphincter says what?” feedback loop, it will have passed the AI Turing Test.
posted by dr_dank at 11:10 AM on May 11 [3 favorites]


I look forward to weaponizing this for prank calling purposes.

Imagine if any kid could conduct 1,000 simultaneous prank calls. Or any hate-minded individual. Or any advertising service. (I think this tech in general isn't a bad thing but needs to be guarded so hard against abuse!)
posted by little onion at 11:13 AM on May 11 [4 favorites]


You needn’t project your personal sense of shame onto other people. Just because you’ve bought into the "always social, all the time" extrovert framework doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t enjoy some peace.

Calling to make a haircut appointment is "always social, all the time"? I'm an introvert and I don't particularly enjoy transactional phone calls, but for the vast majority of us that don't have clinical social anxiety, random short phone conversations are just another thing I don't particularly enjoy but do because I live in a society, you know?
posted by Automocar at 11:15 AM on May 11 [4 favorites]


It's the beast at Tanagra, but it will be like Kadir beneath Mo Moteh and have Shaka, when the walls fell.

It make be hard but Kailash, when it rises.


Go to the source...

Neither of them answered, and after a time, the Ascian began to speak:

In times past, loyalty to the cause of the populace was to be found everywhere. The will of the Group of Seventeen was the will of everyone.

Foila interpreted: Once upon a time …

Let no one be idle. If one is idle, let him band together with others who are idle too, and let them look for idle land. Let everyone they meet direct them. It is better to walk a thousand leagues than to sit in the House of Starvation.

There was a remote farm worked in partnership by people who were not related.

One is strong, another beautiful, a third a cunning artificer. Which is best? He who serves the populace.

On this farm lived a good man.

Let the work be divided by a wise divider of work. Let the food be divided by a just divider of food. Let the pigs grow fat. Let rats starve.

The others cheated him of his share.

The people meeting in counsel may judge, but no one is to receive more than a hundred blows.

He complained, and they beat him.

How are the hands nourished? By the blood. How does the blood reach the hands? By the veins. If the veins are closed, the hands will rot away.

He left that farm and took to the roads.

Where the Group of Seventeen sit, there final justice is done.

He went to the capital and complained of the way he had been treated.

Let there be clean water for those who toil. Let there be hot food for them and a clean bed.

He came back to the farm, tired and hungry after his journey.

No one is to receive more than a hundred blows.

They beat him again.

Behind everything some further thing is found, forever; thus the tree behind the bird, stone beneath soil, the sun behind Urth. Behind our efforts, let there be found our efforts.

The just man did not give up. He left the farm again to walk to the capital.

Can all petitioners be heard? No, for all cry together. Who, then, shall be heard - is it those who cry loudest? No, for all cry loudly. Those who cry longest shall be heard, and justice shall be done to them.

Arriving at the capital, he camped upon the very doorstep of the Group of Seventeen and begged all who passed to listen to him. After a long time he was admitted to the palace, where those in authority heard his complaints with sympathy.

So say the Group of Seventeen: From those who steal, take all they have, for nothing that they have is their own.

They told him to go back to the farm and tell the bad men - in their name - that they must leave.

As a good child to its mother, so is the citizen to the Group of Seventeen.

He did just as they had said.

What is foolish speech? It is wind. It has come in at the ears and goes out of the mouth. No one is to receive more than a hundred blows.

They mocked him and beat him.

Behind our efforts, let there be found our efforts.

The just man did not give up. He returned to the capital once more.

The citizen renders to the populace what is due to the populace. What is due to the populace? Everything.

He was very tired. His clothes were in rags and his shoes worn out. He had no food and nothing to trade.

It is better to be just than to be kind, but only good judges can be just; let those who cannot be just be kind.

In the capital he lived by begging..

posted by y2karl at 11:17 AM on May 11 [7 favorites]


These Violent Delights Have, um, Violent Ends.
posted by Pendragon at 11:18 AM on May 11 [11 favorites]


So, like, will it also, you know, add "so and "like" and "you know?"
posted by zakur at 11:19 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]


asking if it was fair to use unknowing live people as test subjects and record them without their knowledge.

That'd be a crime in my state. If the calls were made from California, recording them was a crime. (Crimes. At least one per call.) Possibly in every state - because even in one-party states, only participants of a conversation are allowed to record it, and those conversations only had one participant. I'm not sure if a court would accept the argument "I, the person recording, was listening to the conversation, so I was a participant even though the other person didn't know it".

If Google records the calls that the assistant does, in order to improve the software... more crimes. (You can consent by installing the app. The other person can't. And again--not sure if you count as a participant in the conversation, if you have an un-announced robot do all the talking.) Announcing the bot will cover for some of that, but it still doesn't mention permission to record.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:21 AM on May 11 [4 favorites]


Imagine if any kid could conduct 1,000 simultaneous prank calls.

I don't know why I have to imagine, there are voice dialing services where you could do this now for under a dollar a call. Google didn't invest speech synthesis and they didn't invent automated dialing. Marketing companies have been doing this for ages.

Google did add in automated speech analysis of the results and a flexible system that can deal with different types of responses automatically.

But if you want to make automated TTS prank calls, that technology existed Monday before the Google IO keynote and iirc it existed a decade ago when I was doing product research to add the feature to a marketing automation system.
posted by GuyZero at 11:24 AM on May 11 [4 favorites]


Imagine if any kid could conduct 1,000 simultaneous prank calls. Or any hate-minded individual. Or any advertising service. (I think this tech in general isn't a bad thing but needs to be guarded so hard against abuse!)

This was my first thought. Now, not only will I have to deal with a robot answering the phone whenever I have to communicate with my insurance company, or utility service, I'll be receiving calls all day from scammers/advertisers. I could see this easily becoming like email spam, because it'll be so cheap and easy to send out hundreds of thousands of calls with a click.
posted by ethical_caligula at 11:24 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]


I'm actually looking forward to the disposal of our philosophical claims to the definition of humanity. This can only happen if we are visited by aliens or create "artificial" intelligent life. Imagine the crippling blow it would do to institutional religion. Imagine the intellectual superiority of our race being challenged for the first time since our rivalry with the Neanderthal. I'm excited, I hope I get to see it in my lifetime.
posted by Brocktoon at 11:25 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]


Maybe it's just not for you.

The thing, though, is that unlike the creation of the piece of plastic for putting socks on that I can use or not use, with no particular difference in my life if I choose not to, this is going to affect how others interact with me and their expectations of how I will interact.
posted by PMdixon at 11:28 AM on May 11 [2 favorites]


I could see this easily becoming like email spam, because it'll be so cheap and easy to send out hundreds of thousands of calls with a click.

What's with the hypothetical tense? I get automated phone calls literally every day.
posted by GuyZero at 11:28 AM on May 11 [11 favorites]


The technology includes adding parts of speech (such as "um"s and "ok"s) to make the speech seem more convincing to the listener.

There are currently voice recognition systems that do this, and it's REALLY ANNOYING. Probably because it's not a "smart" system, and the voice prompt starts every response with the same "Okay..." with the same intonation, so it's the audio version of the uncanny valley (for me), which adds to my frustration of trying to work with a voice recognition system.

Protip: if you pretend that listed options are numbered, you can often push the corresponding number on your phone and the system will recognize it as a viable response. For example, if the system says "For billing, say 'billing;' for account balance, say 'balance,' or for office hours, say 'hours,'" you can usually push 1 for billing, 2 for balance, or 3 for hours.

Otherwise, you can mash the hash sign, star or zero a bunch and get shunted to a real live human, but that's not always the case. To operate with more certainty, check if your phone service in question is included in GetHuman.com's guides to short-cutting the robo-help and getting a real person.


NoxAeternum: Remember when Google claimed their motto was "Don't be evil"?

Google (or Alphabet) is big, and contains multitudes. And they still do some good, like their recent decision to bans ads for bail bonds services, citing
Studies [PDF] show that for-profit bail bond providers make most of their revenue from communities of color and low income neighborhoods when they are at their most vulnerable, including through opaque financing offers that can keep people in debt for months or years.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:30 AM on May 11 [7 favorites]


Anticipating youtube videos pranking the bots. Should be a solid three months of silliness.
posted by sammyo at 11:31 AM on May 11


I'm actually looking forward to the disposal of our philosophical claims to the definition of humanity.

For a while I was excited because I thought the coming of AI would mean we would be more aware of the possibility of consciousness in nonhuman beings, and would act with more humility as a result. I'm afraid that instead that instead we're just seeing conscious-seeming things as more disposable - caring less about everyone rather than more about more things. Maybe that isn't inevitable though.
posted by tarshish bound at 11:31 AM on May 11 [5 favorites]


I can see the duplex style robocalls measuring response time between their query and a response, and if it's sufficiently quick enough, increasing the speed of the broadcast slightly each time.

When it can determine it's talking to another computer, it could then flip over to a different mode of communication.

Listening in, perhaps we'd hear both voices are running at 4x normal speed, if not other machine noise language, to improve efficiency.
posted by dreamling at 11:37 AM on May 11 [2 favorites]


Unfortunately the whole realm of social skills that enable people to get along civilly with others has been disintegrating steadily as the need to do so declines.

Having lived in Boston prior to the advent of the internet, YMMV based on location.

Anyway, I'm really looking forward to what Longmont Potion Castle can do with this.
posted by ryanshepard at 11:50 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]


The thing, though, is that unlike the creation of the piece of plastic for putting socks on that I can use or not use, with no particular difference in my life if I choose not to, this is going to affect how others interact with me and their expectations of how I will interact.

I do agree that having it not clearly identify itself immediately is a bad choice. It should be:
"Hi, I'm Google's AI assistant calling on behalf of ____________. Could I schedule an appointment for them?"
"No."
"Okay. I will let them know. Goodbye."

Is refusing to talk to Google going to be bad business? Maybe. Should it always be a choice? Absolutely.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 11:52 AM on May 11 [15 favorites]


I think a foundational criticism is that if you could make a computer powerful enough to emulate a person in an interaction then you could do it more effectively than the overhead of human labor. This is analogous to why Apple's Mac OS removed all those lifelike UI elements; they eventually became rather pointless clutter (skeumorphism).
posted by polymodus at 11:59 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]


Tarshish: I'm guessing there will be people who resist a threat to our species existence with violence and people who embrace the notion of "artificial" life as a natural progression of evolution. Maybe swapping bodily fluids will no longer be the best way to sustain our legacy. I won't be able to influence it in any meaningful way, so I don't feel so bad about saying "fuck it" and let my curiosity and imagination run with it.
posted by Brocktoon at 12:00 PM on May 11 [1 favorite]


Silicon Valley is deep in the Ian Malcolm Problem - they get so focused on whether they can do something that they never think about if they should do it.

but, uh... well, there it is.
posted by entropicamericana at 12:08 PM on May 11 [2 favorites]


You forgot the part where the best and brightest minds fundamentally avoid interacting with their fellow humans as much as possible,

When the fellow humans are as self-righteous and overflowing with hot-takes as those in this thread...yeah, I'd rather deal with a computer. I mean, a technology that could help us on the way to the fully-automated Space Communism that's so popular here get shat upon because ... the wrong type of people are working on it? it's bad because someone can't see why another person would find it useful (e.g, anxiety, being able to schedule things outside of 9-5 hours, etc.)?

Also, Google, in it's own introductory blog post, states it "want[s] to be clear about the intent of the call so businesses understand the context".
posted by MikeKD at 12:08 PM on May 11 [12 favorites]


There are a lot of things wrong with this, but one of the most glaring is this idea that google (and other valley) engineers have internalized, which is that "human beings do not like talking to each other".

I like talking to people just fine, but I do intensely dislike talking to people on the phone.
posted by atoxyl at 12:19 PM on May 11 [5 favorites]


> Mr.Encyclopedia:
"Hi, I'm Google's AI assistant calling on behalf of ____________. Could I schedule an appointment for them?"

It will flip the script where I'm normally the one shouting "operator?!"
posted by cichlid ceilidh at 12:25 PM on May 11


For a while I was excited because I thought the coming of AI would mean we would be more aware of the possibility of consciousness in nonhuman beings, and would act with more humility as a result. I'm afraid that instead that instead we're just seeing conscious-seeming things as more disposable - caring less about everyone rather than more about more things.

Much as people like to say Star Wars is just space fantasy with no science fiction elements...if you want an accurate picture of how people in the future will treat AIs, just look at how people treat droids in Star Wars. Which is somewhere in between large household appliance, slave, and pet.
posted by mstokes650 at 12:30 PM on May 11 [4 favorites]


I want one in clavdivs.

GRAMINA HAEDOS ADEPTO VOS OFF MEA !
posted by y2karl at 12:50 PM on May 11


I work at a bank call center as a “24-hour banker”. We have an automated prompt that you can go through to get your balance, see recent transactions, transfer funds between accounts, etc. A lot of people really love it and get super upset when they either press a wrong button or otherwise get sent to me, who needs to get them verified to discuss their accounts (“get super upset” is putting it lightly. I literally have people scream and yell and demean me all because they pressed the wrong button when entering their SSN or some other number, and when I tell them they did (because it shows me that they did) they tell me I’m wrong and that there’s literally no way they could have mistyped it, and sometimes they’ll hang up on me when I tell them to double check their phone screen). A lot of people also hate it and prefer to speak to a human being, either because they need detailed info that can be relayed to them a lot more smoothly than the robotic voice, or because in the midst of the call they decide they need more information about something that only I can give them, or they need to do something only I can do, or they have questions, etc.

Part of my job is letting people know about online banking, so that they don’t need to call. I can sell a lot of people on the idea of online banking, but more than 2/3 of my callers either don’t have a computer or don’t trust computers/the internet, so they call in. While I see something like Google Duplex taking my job down the line, there’s also an element that is missing here that is crucial, and that is that people love to call up a call center and complain and yell and scream at another human being on the line. I spend every day using de-escalation skills in order to talk to customers in situations that would be extremely hostile if conducted in person, simply due to the fact that these people are literally screaming at me and sometimes threatening me.

The flip side of this terrible aspect of working at a call center is that a lot of people actually do enjoy talking on the phone, and if I’ve done a good job on a call supporting a customer, giving them good information, explaining to them how to solve a problem, choreographing the steps needed to be taken in order to solve a problem, you can definitely hear it in their voice by the end of the call and the way they sign off, and it’s very obvious that their mood has changed.

On top of this, a lot of people, especially elderly people, are lonely, and will use any excuse to talk to a human being they can get. I have literally had major conversations with 80+ year old people who are obviously very alone because their spouse died years ago, or they’re in a home, they have very little normal human contact, or their kids are far away and are grown adults with lives of their own with not a lot of time to talk to them, or something. A lot of call center jobs are not just call center jobs, they are oftentimes minor therapy positions. I’ve had women call in and cry to me about how they are low on money because they just had some cancerous lumps taken out of them and can I please waive an overdraft fee they got because they made a mistake and times are tough, or other women call in and tell me how their boyfriends or husbands are abusing them and spending all the money in their joint checking account. I have to service these calls, and they are brutal. It’s also very hard for me, a bipolar person, to go from a call like that, to a normal “I just need my balance” call, to somebody screaming and yelling at me. I think it would be interesting to see how something like Google Duplex handles those sorts of humanizing interactions, ones that don’t strictly pertain to “solve this problem, but act like a human while doing it”. I’m a human being, and I have an exceptionally hard time empathizing with other human beings (due to my own issues).

Also, it’ll be interesting to see how Google Duplex interfaces with peoples’ bank accounts. Ostensibly, if you have Google Duplex you probably have online banking, but the possibilities of fraud really make me wonder. Over the phone, I can only verify that customers are who they say they are by asking them questions that they have provided to the bank. I don’t see them and I don’t know what they sound like, so if Google Duplex calls up and gives me all of John Doe’s information and all of it checks out and I talk about John Doe’s bank account to this thing, but the person doing this isn’t actually John Doe but somebody who skimmed his info somehow, what happens then?
posted by gucci mane at 1:05 PM on May 11 [32 favorites]


Behind our efforts, let there be found our efforts.

Thanks for posting that. That one phrase stuck with me for years and I couldn't remember where I read it.
posted by Foosnark at 1:14 PM on May 11 [1 favorite]


 Hello ...
Hi, I'm calling to book an appointment for a woman's haircut for a client?
 ... and welcome to the Dewey Plaza automated ordering service.  If you are 
 calling for Stellar Pizza, say "pizza".
Um, just a woman's haircut please?
 I did not recognize your response.  If you are calling for Cindy's hair
 salon, say "Cindy's" ...
Yes, an appointment at the hair salon. For next Tuesday please, May 3rd.
 I did not recognize your response.  If you are calling for Mother's 
 Flowers, say "Mother".
May 3rd, at 9 AM, or between 9 AM and 12 PM if that's possible.
 Connected to Mother's Flowers ... What type of flower arrangement are
 you looking for?
A woman's haircut, for a client, for next Tuesday.
 I do not recognize that type of flower arrangement.  Options available
 include "Birthday bouquet", "Iris assortment", "Cut Roses", ...
This is for 9 AM?
 You have chosen Delphiniums.  How many would you like?
I am not sure what you're saying.
 I did not understand your response.
I am calling to book a woman's haircut for a client?
 How many Delphiniums would you like?
For May 3rd, around 9 AM.
 Thank you.  And when would you like them delivered?
Next Tuesday, May 3rd.
 Would you like them delivered to the address we have on file?
If you have an address on file, I do not wish to change it.
 Thank you for using the Mother's Flowers voice ordering system.  Your
 order will be delivered next Tuesday.
Thank you, my client will be there next Tuesday.
posted by sfenders at 1:42 PM on May 11 [26 favorites]


Listening in, perhaps we'd hear both voices are running at 4x normal speed, if not other machine noise language, to improve efficiency.

This "machine noise language" exists, and you used to be able to pick up phones and hear it accidentally all the time. (Followed immediately by someone else in your family saying "ugggh you just disconnected me again".)

Anyway I'd imagine this will just push more businesses towards offering online bookings/reservations which is probably what Google wants eventually. There aren't too many restaurants in my area that don't do OpenTable already—and I think OpenTable is, from the restaurant front-of-house perspective, basically a fax-based system if you don't have a computer system that plugs into it.

What kinda sucks is that there's not really a standardized API for doing reservations, instead we have services like OpenTable that become de facto standards by virtue of having a near-monopoly, or restaurants roll their own webforms or whatever. What it would be nice if someone big like Google did, would be to standardize the API so you could just use whatever app you wanted, and shove some XML or JSON at a REST endpoint and make your reservation for your haircut or dinner or whatever.

Actually the best way would probably be to do it as some sort of iCal/CalDAV type thing so you could integrate it into your calendar or PIM software and check availability without actually putting in a request for a reservation. Some businesses might not like the information leakage about how busy they are, I suppose, but not like someone can't tell that anyway.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:53 PM on May 11 [3 favorites]


What it would be nice if someone big like Google did, would be to standardize the API so you could just use whatever app you wanted, and shove some XML or JSON at a REST endpoint and make your reservation for your haircut or dinner or whatever.

Also, what would be nice is if it could swear back at the rude people who can't push the right button, right ?
posted by y2karl at 1:59 PM on May 11


People still answer the phone? 90% of my calls are already just local caller spoofing robo calls.
posted by srboisvert at 2:27 PM on May 11 [2 favorites]


People still answer the phone?

If you run a hair salon, yeah.
posted by GuyZero at 2:32 PM on May 11 [3 favorites]


Every time I tick a box that says "I'm not a robot" I get Styx stuck in my head for days.

Domo arigato for that earworm.
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:37 PM on May 11 [7 favorites]


Can it call my relatives for me?
posted by fiercecupcake at 2:48 PM on May 11 [1 favorite]


sfenders, I know, right, current automated voice systems suck; hopefully, Duplex-style systems will be an improvement over your (albeit extended) example of the current state of the art.
posted by MikeKD at 3:31 PM on May 11 [1 favorite]


If you want to know if you're dealing with a bot, just ask it what the highest number is.
If it says "2,147,483,647", it's a 32-bit bot, if it says "9,223,372,036,854,775,807", it's a 64-bit bot, if it says "infinity", it's a human, or a script, and if it says "24", it's Don Corelli.
posted by subocoyne at 3:32 PM on May 11 [12 favorites]


What if it answers "42"?
posted by Greg_Ace at 3:47 PM on May 11 [2 favorites]


If you want to know if you're dealing with a bot, just ask it what the highest number is.

OK Google, what's the highest number?

According to the website (something) that largest commonly used number is a Googleplex which is a one followed by a hundred zeroes.

The smart agents are way ahead of you.
posted by GuyZero at 3:56 PM on May 11


While I'm still feeling comfortable enough about this to continue joking, here's a relevant SMBC about where Google's eventually headed.

Also:
Much as people like to say Star Wars is just space fantasy with no science fiction elements...if you want an accurate picture of how people in the future will treat AIs, just look at how people treat droids in Star Wars. Which is somewhere in between large household appliance, slave, and pet.

Yep. In point of fact, we've been talking about this regularly in the Star Trek Voyager recap club, in the context of the Doctor and treatment of holographic AI in the Federation. Latest relevant episode was just yesterday.

And:
Unfortunately the whole realm of social skills that enable people to get along civilly with others has been disintegrating steadily as the need to do so declines.

Right?

It's funny: when I was growing up, cyberpunk dystopian fiction was all about dehumanization because people were more machine-like, but now that we're here, I really believe it'll be because computers are enough like us to further acclimate us to treating anthropomorphic stuff like shit.

(Although for one prescient take, I recommend The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster.)
posted by mordax at 4:09 PM on May 11 [3 favorites]


According to the website (something) that largest commonly used number is a Googleplex which is a one followed by a hundred zeroes.

The smart agents are way ahead of you.


Pretty far behind, I think.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 4:11 PM on May 11


If the assistant answers with the same results that Google does, I think that might tip off its bot-ness as well. If they want it to seem really human, it would just respond to these kind of attempts with "uh... what?", "stop messing with me" or " *sigh*... look, I'm just trying to make an appointment here."

Kind of makes me wonder how much productivity will be lost to people trying to Turing test their phone conversations instead of just doing the task at hand.
posted by subocoyne at 4:28 PM on May 11 [1 favorite]


But... How is this going to work if Google cannot even reliably transcribe human speech? Go turn on automated captions on almost any YouTube video. They're trash. Most of my transcribed voicemails for Google Voice are half-nonsense.

I can't get most automated voice systems to understand me. I think it's AT&T customer "service" that requires you to say what you want to do ("pay your bill," "check your data usage") etc. It never ever understands what I say, even "yes" or "no," and I speak English natively. It's probably because I am hard of hearing and have a little bit of the "accent" that Deaf people often have. So what do people with heavy non-English accents, or stutters, or other speech issues do?
posted by AFABulous at 4:29 PM on May 11 [6 favorites]


But... How is this going to work if Google cannot even reliably transcribe human speech? Go turn on automated captions on almost any YouTube video. They're trash. Most of my transcribed voicemails for Google Voice are half-nonsense.

So google voice recognition is weird. I agree that YouTube captions are, uh, suboptimal, and Google Voice is a joke.

But somehow Google Assistant gets stuff really right. Like it will contextually rewrite homonyms based on context when you issuing a query. I suspect there's more than one voice recognition system.
posted by GuyZero at 4:50 PM on May 11


From the main article: "To obtain its high precision, we trained Duplex’s RNN on a corpus of anonymized phone conversation data."

Ummm... where did these conversations come from? Android users? Google employees?
posted by AFABulous at 4:50 PM on May 11 [2 favorites]


Can I set it up to call all my legislators because I still get SO ANXIOUS every time.

Not exactly what you're asking for, but ResistBot sounds relevant to your interests.
posted by webmutant at 4:59 PM on May 11 [1 favorite]


Daringfireball thinks the demo was faked. Based on the comments here and elsewhere, it seems a lot like a live demo would have violated the law by not asking for consent to record (the whole keynote was being recorded, even if the call wasn't separately recorded), so that might explain the sketchiness there. But really, Google does need to tell us where it got its training data from and whether it will be recording these calls in the future, especially when it seems a lot like it isn't legal to do so.
posted by HiddenInput at 5:02 PM on May 11 [2 favorites]


Being hard of hearing, I can't wait for this technology to be available to me. Talking on the phone can be an interesting frustrating experience in some situations.
posted by adzm at 5:33 PM on May 11 [2 favorites]


A marriage made in heaven: It's Lenny!

(It's a neural net that responds to sales calls with sampled old-man chatter)
posted by wires at 5:38 PM on May 11


Remember when Google claimed their motto was "Don't be evil"?

Ah, the mandatory comment in every single Google-related post. It seems like the bar for "evil" has gotten really, really low, at least as far as Google is concerned. Build a product that could be incredibly helpful to people with disabilities, or who are just busy, but it makes some people slightly uncomfortable? Evil! Change the way Chrome handles auto-playing videos in a way that's slightly different from how you would have done it? Evil! Revamp a UI so it takes two clicks instead of one to access your favorite feature? ULTIMATE EVIL!

---

Anticipating youtube videos pranking the bots.

How do you prank something that doesn't have emotions?

---

Re gucci mane: That sounds like hell. I feel like it would be better for everyone involved if the human part of the interaction could be separated from the mechanical part, so people who just need to check their account balance or whatever could talk to a machine, and people who want some human interaction could call someone whose actual job is to serve as an emotional first responder. Everybody wins, except the abusive customers. I, for one, am all for making it harder for irrationally angry people to vent their frustration on call center workers.

---

What it would be nice if someone big like Google did, would be to standardize the API so you could just use whatever app you wanted, and shove some XML or JSON at a REST endpoint and make your reservation for your haircut or dinner or whatever.

I guarantee that if Google did something like that, you'd see people here complaining about how Google is trying to insert itself into more business transactions as part of its quest for world domination.
posted by shponglespore at 5:57 PM on May 11 [5 favorites]


How is this going to work if Google cannot even reliably transcribe human speech?
Based on the blog post it sounds like the main answer is that it’s tightly limited on very narrow problems where the conversational scope is limited. I suspect Duplex will either be in beta for awhile or actively resisted by anyone who gets stuck in a nonsense loop.

This seems likely to be the challenge for the current crop of AI products: performance is good on very specific tasks but corporate marketing campaigns are based on pitching it as generally good and so they choose not to design the product in a way which acknowledges the possibility of errors – e.g. Google Photos doesn’t have a way for me to help tell them that it incorrectly tags my dog as a cat about 90% of the time.
posted by adamsc at 6:00 PM on May 11 [1 favorite]


This seems tailor made for users who Have No Mouth and Must Scream
posted by nickggully at 6:20 PM on May 11 [1 favorite]


In regard to the call center problem, maybe a Duplex-like program could field all the level 1 calls and get people to their accounts, fix their issue, and let them scream at a non-human while thinking they’re screaming at a human. Save the actual humans for higher levels of support.

Having done support myself and being aware of the “senior keeping you on the phone for an hour” issue, honestly—maybe something like this would be a benefit. If someone wants social interaction, and they interact with an entity who, for all practical purposes, provides the same conversational interaction as an actual person, is that a negative or a positive? I’m genuinely wondering. I think it encourages the continuing divorce between reality and perception (bad enough as it is with “online harassment isn’t real harassment” and “fake news” and the like) but at the same time, if a person is socially isolated, is an electronic friend a bad idea?
posted by Autumnheart at 6:34 PM on May 11


From the main article: "To obtain its high precision, we trained Duplex’s RNN on a corpus of anonymized phone conversation data."

Ummm... where did these conversations come from? Android users? Google employees?
posted by AFABulous at 4:50 PM on May 11


Now my memory may be a bit fuzzy, but I seem to recall Google offering a free long distance service (you called the Google 1-800 number and then spoke--I think--the long distance number you wanted to connect with). Google said it was for something like speech recognition training. I don't think they actually came out and said it, but I suspected all of the calls were recorded. This information could be been used in the creation of this type of service.
posted by sardonyx at 6:39 PM on May 11


sardonyx, it sounds like the old (pre-smartphone saturation era) GOOG-411 service? (And according to the Wiki, there was a notice that the call may be recorded...though it's unsourced.)
posted by MikeKD at 7:28 PM on May 11


That was probably it. It was definitely something I accessed over a landline. But just because stuff is older, I can't imagine Google dumping all of the data and calls it collected, and I can easily envision the Alphabetors repurposing the recorded callas as training material for Duplex.
posted by sardonyx at 8:24 PM on May 11


Ummm... where did these conversations come from? Android users? Google employees?

Calls that may have been recorded for quality purposes.

It's not hard to collect business-related recordings that have been legitimately obtained; it's hard to do outgoing calls to strangers and get permission to record them.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 8:44 PM on May 11 [1 favorite]


This is more a testament to Google's text and speech capabilities nowadays and a harbinger of, say, ten years from now when it could be used in any number of situations off the phone and trained on more and more of Google's limitless data. Any sort of information-sharing social situation, for example I could imagine a dystopian world where HR phone screens are between a candidate and AI screener...

For scheduling appointments I think this works very naturally and isn't as absurd as some are framing it. Calls to schedule or order something are impersonal and just to pass along info to the employee anyway.
posted by hexaflexagon at 11:18 PM on May 11 [1 favorite]


1. I want to be able to customize it so that Arnold Schwarzenegger is making my hair appointments, and Andy Serkis calls for pizza.

1.b. Why are personal assistants always young female voices?

2. Hello, this is Google Mom. Have you done your homework? Oh, good. Is your underwear clean? That's great. When was your last shower? Maybe you should have one today.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:27 AM on May 12 [6 favorites]


Waiting eagerly for the first time I get a call from Google Duplex telling me that it's the Technical Support Department for my Windows computer.
posted by flabdablet at 4:48 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


It will be primarily used for robocalls to sell you something or to vote a certain way.
posted by JJ86 at 5:59 AM on May 12


Having done support myself and being aware of the “senior keeping you on the phone for an hour” issue, honestly—maybe something like this would be a benefit. If someone wants social interaction, and they interact with an entity who, for all practical purposes, provides the same conversational interaction as an actual person, is that a negative or a positive? I’m genuinely wondering.

I currently work in a customer service position for which a significant portion of my job is answering what are supposed to be customer service calls from lonely and sometimes very confused elderly people. Sometimes it is really hard to conclude the call with them because they just want to keep talking, usually about things that have nothing to do with our company. In those cases, I feel like I might as well be a robot because I'm just sitting there feeling trapped, barely saying anything for minutes at a time while the caller just rambles on and on and none of my usual methods of concluding the conversation are working.

It is very frustrating and time consuming for people in my department when we get these calls. Despite the obvious awful implications and likely destructive uses of this technology, I'm not totally against the idea of something like this being easily accessible for lonely elderly people, and I wonder if it really would help them. At the same time, so many of them have no computer, no ability to use a computer, and may only have a basic landline, so how long would it take for this sort of thing to truly be accessible and appealing to a generation of elderly people?

I also wonder how it will handle things like the false premise. The caller thinks they're calling about one simple thing, but then that thing isn't true the way they think it is, and as a customer service rep you have to kind of dig around for what they're looking to do and what might be feasible in their situation. The Google Duplex example of the robot trying to make a reservation for 4, when the restaurant only accepts reservations for parties of 5 and up, sort of addressed that, but stuff like that can quickly get very complicated to navigate.

The other thing that's kind of funny about this to me - my department is I guess one of the rare customer service numbers where, when you call it, a person immediately answers the phone if someone is available. We don't have a phone tree and we don't have a script. Sometimes we'll answer the phone, and the first words out of the caller's clearly agape mouth is, "WOW, a LIVE HUMAN!?!?!" which as you might guess is an annoying thing for a busy customer service rep to hear. Just get to the point already!

So now I'm imagining a world where customer service reps will start getting tons of these robot phone calls, to the point where it will be amazing when we answer the phone and a human being is on the line, and we will start expressing incredulity at that and the caller will find it really annoying.
posted by wondermouse at 6:34 AM on May 12 [5 favorites]


If cheap mobile phones allow people to automate away the paperwork of being poor than this might be a great thing.

I'd like to see this sort of technology when I am older and not really able to organize my day, call in my meds, etc. Putting isolated people into contact with others might be a nice feature.
posted by pdoege at 7:17 AM on May 12


Conforming to the arbitrary schedules of places like salons, restaurants, and way more importantly the unpredictable and professionally intransigent medical front office gatekeepers is the most compelling motivation for this technology. No I really don't have time to call, leave a message, wait for a call back during another already scheduled part of my day, call back Thursday because sorry that doctor's scheduling assistant isn't in the office, no we can't leave you a voicemail... No.

This is true for rich and poor, able and differently, generally the requirement that conflates "meaningful social interaction" with "get me an appointment I can actually attend or help me discover this office cannot accommodate my schedule" is misguided. There's plenty of room and time for even the friendly call to check in.

But teaching a machine to help you achieve your goals and making it able to actually perform that function is, as noted above, a clear step in the direction of Fully Automated Gay Space Communism and doesn't seem to ask much in return. It literally meets business where it is (on the phone) rather than spearheading another doomed effort to standardize calendaring/appointments and scheduling. Look into that history some time - it's a classically "easy" problem which is made deceptively simple by the end product that hides the nuanced negotiation that got there - much of it human mediated.
posted by abulafa at 4:48 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]


It seems like there are some basic problems here, but maybe I'm not seeing the whole thing.

How do you know the appointment or arrangements were made properly?
What if the business or organization says it wasn't or claims some other outcome?
What if they're right?
Do you have to follow up on everything, and if so what was the point to begin with?

I really don't understand the whole idea of making it sound "natural". That seems more annoying than a robotic voice, and I think people will respond that way after they get used to it.

If I'm going to talk to a computer just spit it out, talk fast and don't make fake conversation and add filler.
posted by bongo_x at 6:35 PM on May 12


Hello, this is Google Mom. Have you done your homework? Oh, good. Is your underwear clean? That's great. When was your last shower? Maybe you should have one today.

This is actually a really, really good idea for depressed people.
posted by AFABulous at 9:00 PM on May 12 [4 favorites]


If it said “BEEP BOOP I AM A ROBOT” before doing anything else, this would be fine.
posted by Going To Maine at 3:05 PM on May 13


This is actually a really, really good idea for depressed people.

I’m a good chaser (former editor) and I’ve thought of starting a specialized form of life coaching like this for people but...I’d worry I was not actually helping, you know?
posted by warriorqueen at 5:42 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


...same for Google Duplex.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:43 PM on May 13


California has a bill to require that phonebots ID themselves; the EFF opposes it
due to its over-breadth—is influenced by the Russian bots that plagued social media prior to the 2016 election and spambots used for fraud or commercial gain. But there are many other types of social bots, and this bill targets all of them. By targeting all bots instead of the specific type of bots driving the legislation, this bill would restrict and chill the use of bots for protected speech activities. EFF has urged the bill’s sponsor to withdraw the proposal until this fundamental constitutional deficiency is addressed.
The bill does look very specifically targeted to "this newfangled phonebot that Google just shared," rather than other automated nuisances like robo-call spam. That's already illegal but not enforced; I have no reason to believe this would be enforced any better. I'm not sure why bot-calls couldn't just be covered under the current robo-call laws.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:57 PM on May 22


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