Google's 'Duplex' Raises Ethical Questions Google has introduced a future feature called "Duplex." It can make outgoing calls to schedule appointments and it has all the characteristics of real human speech. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks with Shane Mac, CEO of Assist about the technology and the ethical questions it raises.

Google's 'Duplex' Raises Ethical Questions

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As robots continue their relentless march towards doing all kinds of things better than humans, we consider this question. Should a bot sound like a human? It's time for All Tech Considered.


KELLY: We're talking today about Google Duplex. It's a technology that mimics natural speech - like, really natural speech. Here's Duplex calling for a dinner reservation.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How may I help you?

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #1: Hi. I'd like to reserve a table for Wednesday the 7th.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: For seven people?

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #1: It's for four people.

KELLY: Google Duplex is designed to handle tasks like booking dinner or scheduling your dental cleaning. It launched an ethics debate when Google demoed it at a conference last week. So into the fray of that debate, let's bring Shane Mac. He is CEO and co-founder of Assist. That is an automated assistant platform for messaging and voice. Shane Mac has spent a lot of time thinking about the technology and the ethics involved here.

Shane, welcome.

SHANE MAC: Thank you for having me on the show.

KELLY: We're glad to have you here. That piece of tape that we just heard, I think part of what throws me is just how natural it sounds - this bot saying mmm hmm and um. What is the reason for making it sound quite so natural?

MAC: I think that was just technology for technology's sake, to be honest. And you see Google actually - after that announcement, they came out and said, we're going to have a disclosure that it is a robot before it gets on the phone.

KELLY: This was a big question at this conference over whether Google had some responsibility to tell people, hey, this is a robot that you're talking to.

MAC: A hundred percent. And I think you're going to see that. You know, this call is being recorded for quality purposes, what you see today. I think there's going to be a lot more of that needed to disclose when it's a robot, when it's not.

KELLY: Is it as basic as saying, hi, by the way, you're talking to a bot?

MAC: Or even think about it in the assistant world is like, this is Shane's assistant. It is an automated assistant, and it is trying to help Shane get things done.

KELLY: I want to play one more sample. This is Duplex calling a hair salon.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hello. How can I help you?

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #2: Hi. I'm calling to book a woman's haircut for a client. I'm looking for something on May 3.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Sure. Give me one second - sure. What time are you looking for around?


KELLY: Is there a big market for this? I mean, one of the things that blew my mind about this was that many people were still making phone calls to do things like schedule brunch in an era where we're all used to apps and just punching in the reservation time we want.

MAC: It's crazy how big it is. Like, 60 percent of people still call. I think this is where it has a real advantage for small businesses. They don't have the resources today to have a great scheduling system. The other side of this is Google - what if they just said, hey, next time instead of us calling you, would you like us to respond with a robot on your side? And then bots are going to be talking to bots.

KELLY: Which is further mind-blowing, yes, that the person answering the phone and carrying out this reservation process would also be a robot. And then it all just auto-populates on your calendar. Is that where this is all headed?

MAC: Probably, yes. I think what the dream of Google is really saving time on both sides so it becomes an intent world. Shane wants to get a haircut; the salon wants to cut hair. Everything in the middle is just saving people time.

KELLY: Although there was a real backlash when Google rolled this out at this conference. I noticed Zeynep Tufekci, who's a professor at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She studies the social impacts of technology. She was tweeting saying calling this is horrifying, saying Silicon Valley is ethically lost. Are you sympathetic to those concerns?

MAC: I think it's actually very important. There's huge implications here when you think about this being used to totally fake as someone. If the robot can sound like John Legend and John Legend calls me and I think it's John Legend and that is now doing things that are unethical, there are so many unanswered questions here that I think we have to really get ahead of. And new laws need to be created of disclosure, of the intent. And is it a machine, or is it not?

KELLY: That's Shane Mac, or at least we think it's Shane Mac.


MAC: That is the thing. I mean...

KELLY: That's the thing. All right, we think we've been talking with Shane Mac, the CEO and co-founder of Assist. Shane Mac, thank you.

MAC: Thank you very much.

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