Google’s most controversial demo of I/O 2018, its Duplex AI that apparently made reservations on behalf of the phone-averse, now faces questions as to just how real the showcase was. The technology, which used artificial intelligence to hold a conversation with employees at both a restaurant and a hair salon, prompted concern from some, for failing to disclose that it wasn’t a real person.
Instead, as Google’s demo showed, Duplex was apparently able to sound sufficiently like a real person to staff at the two businesses. The technology was billed as a potential time-saver, an AI assistant that could handle your scheduling when you were unwilling or unable to pick up the phone yourself.
Although Duplex was undoubtedly impressive, it also ignited discussions around what sort of obligation artificial intelligences might have to identify themselves when interacting with humans. Neither of the employees of the hair salon and the restaurant were told during the recordings of the calls that Google played that they were in conversation with an AI. That, some have argued, had a moral dimension that Google ought to have addressed.
In the aftermath of the I/O demo, however, a more fundamental question has come up: just how real was Google’s showcase of Duplex in the first place. Asked by Axios to identify the two companies used, Google declined to disclose them. Meanwhile, the company also failed to address speculation that it had edited the calls played at I/O.
Suspicions about the veracity of the calls had been raised when it was observed that neither of the women apparently answering the phone at the two businesses announced the company name when they did so. Neither is there audible ambient noise in either recording. While not a foolproof indicator that one or both of the calls might have been staged, it’s been enough to raise eyebrows. Google, though, did not comment on the question of potential editing.
Of course, it’s not especially unusual for technical demonstrations at events like I/O to be face skepticism – sometimes valid. Steve Jobs’ now-legendary presentation of the original iPhone in 2007, for example, was a carefully orchestrated balancing act with no shortage of smoke and mirrors. As one of the engineers involved in the first iPhone later revealed, Apple hard-coded full signal strength on every demo device it showed, and surreptitiously switched between prototypes at different stages since no one device could complete every task without crashing along the way.
To some extent, then, that’s the nature of a developer demo. Google, after all, was previewing Duplex at I/O, an event that specifically focuses on upcoming – though not necessarily market-ready – products and technologies. That it won’t now confirm or deny just how much of the demonstration was real and how much was staged is, arguably, more of an issue than the staging itself.
Either way, the bigger question would seem to remain the responsibility – or otherwise – that creators of realistic AIs have to disclose when we’re talking to them. That’s something Google later said it was working on, though not in time to include in the demo.