Google, at its annual developer conference last week, took us way beyond such concerns as search engine optimization as CEO Sundar Pichai took us all on a trip deep into the uncanny valley, that space where technology so closely resembles humanity that it gives us the creeps.
Pichai performed that feat by showing off upcoming tricks from the company’s assistant artificial intelligence. Specifically, he showed how the assistant could make phone calls for users, and fool people into believing they were talking with a human being. It’s a big step from search engine optimization to artificial intelligence powerful enough to mimic a phone conversation, but Google is apparently ready to take it.
The Google CEO’s demonstration of the ability the company calls Duplex set off alarms, according to NPR. NPR reports:
“Google Assistant making calls pretending to be human not only without disclosing that it’s a bot, but adding ‘ummm’ and ‘aaah’ to deceive the human on the other end with the room cheering it… horrifying. Silicon Valley is ethically lost, rudderless and has not learned a thing,” tweeted Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies the social impacts of technology.
“As digital technologies become better at doing human things, the focus has to be on how to protect humans, how to delineate humans and machines, and how to create reliable signals of each—see 2016. This is straight up, delilberate deception. Not okay,” she added.
Entrepreneur and writer Anil Dash agreed: “This stuff is really, really basic, but: any interaction with technology or the products of tech companies must be exist within a context of informed consent. Something like
#GoogleDuplex fails this test, _by design_. That’s an unfixable flaw.”
The engineers who designed Duplex address the issue only vaguely in the company blog post. “It’s important to us that users and businesses have a good experience with this service, and transparency is a key part of that,” they write. “We want to be clear about the intent of the call so businesses understand the context. We’ll be experimenting with the right approach over the coming months.”