Google says it’s designing Duplex with ‘disclosure built-in’

Earlier this week, Google CEO Sundar Pichai unveiled Duplex, artificial intelligence voice technology that sounds jaw-droppingly human. It’s used with the Google Assistant, the search giant’s rival to Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri digital assistants, and — for now — will mainly be used to book your appointments and reservations over the phone.

The so-called ‘Duplex’ feature of the Google Assistant was shown calling a hair salon to book a woman’s hair cut, and ringing a restaurant to try to book a table — only to be told it did not accept bookings for less than five people.

At which point the AI changed tack and asked about wait times, earning its owner and controller, Google, the reassuring intel that there wouldn’t be a long wait at the elected time. Job done.

The voice system deployed human-sounding vocal cues, such as ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ — to make the “conversational experience more comfortable“, as Google couches it in a blog about its intentions for the tech.

The voices Google used for the AI in the demos were not synthesized robotic tones but distinctly human-sounding, in both the female and male flavors it showcased.

Duplex stirred up plenty of debate about whether or how a such a realistic-sounding virtual assistant should identify itself to humans. Google had previously said it wanted to make it so people would know when they’re talking to a bot.

On Thursday, Google said explicitly that it will design disclosures into the feature.

“We understand and value the discussion around Google Duplex — as we’ve said from the beginning, transparency in the technology is important,” a Google spokeswoman said in a statement. “We are designing this feature with disclosure built-in, and we’ll make sure the system is appropriately identified. What we showed at I/O was an early technology demo, and we look forward to incorporating feedback as we develop this into a product.”

Unlike the semirobotic voice you typically hear coming out of a Google Home smart speaker, Duplex sounds convincingly natural. It uses verbal tics like “uh” and “um.” It speaks with the cadence of a real person, pausing before responding and elongating certain words as though it’s buying time to think.

With this new speaking ability, Google Assistant gets that much closer to hitting a milestone in the evolution of computing: passing the Turing test. To pass the Turing test, proposed by English computer scientist Alan Turing in 1950, a computer’s natural language responses would have to be indistinguishable from a human’s.

John Hennessy, board chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, said Thursday that Duplex does in fact pass the test when it comes specifically to booking appointments. “It doesn’t pass it in general terms, but it passes in that domain. And that’s really an indication of what’s coming,” he said.

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