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Google opens its human-sounding Duplex AI to public testing

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Posted in Business on 29th Jun, 2018 09:21 AM by Alex Muller

Google is moving ahead with Duplex, artificial intelligence behind its new automated system that places phone calls on your behalf with a natural-sounding voice. The search giant said it's beginning public testing of the software, which debuted in May and which is designed to make calls to businesses and book appointments.

 

Duplex instantly raised questions over the ethics and privacy implications of using an AI assistant to hold lifelike conversations for you.

 

Google says its plan is to start its public trial with a small group of "trusted testers" and businesses that have opted into receiving calls from Duplex. Over the "coming weeks," the software will only call businesses to confirm business and holiday hours, such as open and close times for the Fourth of July. People will be able to start booking reservations at restaurants and hair salons starting "later this summer." 

 

On Tuesday, Google invited press to Oren's Hummus Shop in Mountain View, California, a small Israeli restaurant two-and-a-half miles away from its corporate campus, to see the first live demos of the project and try it out for ourselves. (Google wouldn't allow video recording of the demos, though. A similar press event was held at a Thai restaurant in New York City a day before.)

 

The event was also a chance for Google to clear the air on Duplex, which has been under scrutiny from the moment Google CEO Sundar Pichai unveiled the technology at its I/O developer conference. Google gave me an early peek at Duplex in May, but declined to give me a live demo, making it difficult at the time to assess how the technology might actually work in real life.

 

Unlike the semi-robotic voice assistants we hear today -- think Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri or the Google Assistant coming out of a Google Home smart speaker -- Duplex sounds jaw-droppingly lifelike. It mimics human speech patterns, using verbal ticks like "uh" and "um." It pauses, elongates words and intones its phrases just like you or I would.

 

But that realism has also freaked people out. Critics were concerned about the ethical implications of an artificially intelligent robot deceiving a human being into thinking he or she was talking to another person.

 

At my preview of Duplex in May, Yossi Matias, Google vice president of engineering, told me the company would likely disclose to people they were talking to a bot, but he wouldn't commit to that being the case. After days of criticism, though, the company explicitly confirmed it would build disclosures into the product.

 

On Wednesday, Google revealed exactly how it will let people know they're talking to an AI. After the software says hello to the person on the other end of the line, it will immediately identify itself: "Hi, I'm the Google Assistant, calling to make a reservation for a client. This automated call will be recorded." (The exact language of the disclosure varied slightly in a few of the different demos.)

 

The company said it will disclose that the call is being recorded "in states that legally require" that disclosure. 11 states, including California, Illinois and Florida "require the consent of every party to a phone call or conversation in order to make the recording lawful," according to the Digital Media Law Project. 38 states and the District of Columbia have one-party consent laws. For calls between states, the stricter law needs to be enforced -- for instance, California law requires it, but New York law doesn't.


Tags: GoogleAIassistantsoftware

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