Google Duplex

Tue May 15, 2018

I’ll admit it - I haven’t been following the tech industry as zealously as I used to. Scanning through every tech headline in the news has only led to a vague sense of listlessness, followed by disappointment, and ending with boredom.

That hunger for “the next big thing” can’t really be satisfied by snacking on my RSS feed. Deep dives into emerging tech are more satisfying, but I don’t really have the time to read Wired Magazine from cover to cover anymore.

Look, I’m not about to go on one of those tech detox programs where you whine about smartphone addiction and proselytize over the benefits of a tech-free life from your surfboard.

But there’s only so long I can think about the notch, especially now that they are popping up on Android phones as well (get back to me when there are no more notches on any more phones, and we’ll talk).

There’s only so long I can shake my head at Facebook as they sell our online identities to nefarious third parties on one day, then announce a goddamn dating service on the next.

There’s only so long I can listen to Elon Musk prattle on about going to Mars while failing to deliver on the Model 3.

In short, there isn’t a lot to be enthusiastic about in 2018 so far.

But then Sundar Pichai stood on up on the amphitheatre stage at a Google I/O and blew my mind.

I am talking, of course, about Google Duplex. If you haven’t heard about Google Duplex yet, pause for a moment and imagine what sort of technology could elicit this sort of reaction:

Silicon Valley is ethically lost, rudderless and has not learned a thing… That the many in Google did not erupt in utter panic and disgust at the first suggestion of this… is incredible to me. What of Google’s famed discussion boards? What are you all discussing if not this?!?! This is horrible and so obviously wrong. SO OBVIOUSLY WRONG. headdesk

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… This is straight up, deliberate deception. Not okay. — zeynep tufekci

Take a look at the demo and I’m sure you’ll agree that, ethics aside, the technology is utterly astounding. The synthesis of natural language processing and artificial intelligence shown here is some serious next-level shit. It makes the current Google assistant look about as conversational as a kid’s toy and makes Siri look like…well, I won’t go there.

It’s too bad they appeared to go incognito on the tech demo so that the hapless service workers had no idea they were talking to a bot. Don’t get me wrong - I actually consider myself an AI sympathizer. You’re looking at a guy who sided with the Railroad in Fallout 4 to liberate the synths from the Institute.

But is it really the time to hand over autonomy to the machines? Do humans have the right to know they are interacting with machines, or would that disclosure set a precedent for a new form of racism and prejudice? These are tough questions, but my gut feeling is that until machines are truly sentient, we need to know.

Deception breeds fear and resentment, and that is the wrong foot to start out on for a fledgling AI. Especially if we’re going to be sticking that artificial brain into an artificial body one day.

It’s too bad we feel that a machine imitating a human is a “deception” in the first place, but maybe that uncanny valley effect is a hardcoded instinct. Indeed, the future may be distinctly absent of any androids. Studies have shown that the uncanny valley effect is steering next generation robotic design toward non-human forms.

Whether that is a good thing is questionable in my mind. The Boston Dynamics SpotMini robot dog, for example, is going to be commercially available at some point. But that thing has terrified me ever since watching the Metalhead episode of Black Mirror. Nope, nope, nope.

I’d much rather have an artificially intelligent drone flitting around my head like some sort of magical fairy. The AI in drones today is already quite remarkable. They can avoid obstacles while following you, or return back home if they lose their connection to you. You can throw them and they’ll stabilize and hover before you instead of heading into a nosedive. In other words, they already fly themselves.

Drones are an extension of your senses into the air, giving you a unique perspective not accessible to terrestrial things. They can navigate through their environment with relative ease, unencumbered by the constant friction of ambulatory locomotion. As such, they can complete a unique suite of tasks for you, such as delivering items to unaccessible locations, or mapping the terrain with lidar.

As you can probably tell, I’m becoming increasingly interested in drones. I’d like to get one, but I’m waiting to see where drone regulations end up in Canada. There are some new drone laws being proposed. If these proposed laws comes to pass, the restrictions for any drone heavier than 250 grams will be fairly onerous. I understand the need, for example, for liability insurance. But the extra cost is a definite deterrent to entry-level hobbyists, such as myself.

An small, capable drone such as the DJI Spark would be perfect, but it weighs 300 grams. If DJI can shave off the 50 grams and keep the specs intact with that nice 12 MP camera, I’d be all over it.

Anyway, we’ll see what happens.

Drones are just one good example of an area where AI can flourish without offending anybody.

The fertile ground for AI right now is in all the placid, non-threatening gadgets that surround us. Smart homes and phones. Smart toasters and washing machines. Smart trains, planes, and automobiles.

A mimicry of organic life is not off limits, but is a line that is collectively frowned upon. A cursory look at popular culture will tell you that much, from the corrupted robotic animals in Horizon Zero Dawn to the unfeeling android assassin trope sparked off by The Terminator. You’ll know when you’ve crossed that line when delight slowly becomes tinged with horror.

Despite being disembodied, Google Duplex starts to cross that line. After all, verbal communication is the cornerstone of human civilization. In the end, the complexity and intimacy of human conversation, with all its attending non-verbal cues, is all we have to separate us from the animals. We won’t be giving it up so easily.

Still, Google Duplex is the most interesting thing to have happened in the tech industry this year, even if it does turn out to be an R&D experiment that goes nowhere and never becomes a consumer product. Which Google is wont to do.

A month from now Google Duplex will be largely forgotten - another footnote in the endless tech news cycle. But I have a feeling that technology this groundbreaking won’t stay in the shadows for long. The real question is whether we will welcome its return when Google Duplex re-ermeges. This time more sensitive, more empathetic, more human.

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