The Beginning of the End of the Beginning

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash
Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

Google Duplex: are we really thinking through the implications of decreased human interaction?

Threshold breached! It was difficult to argue with the data… A beeping sound from John’s Wear OS watch was reporting higher than normal stress levels: elevated resting heart rate, shallow breathing and abnormal heart rate variability. These were all symptomatic of John’s hectic lifestyle catching up with him, and he knew it. Other than the occasional Sunday afternoon watching old episodes of Westworld, he’d not switched off from work for months. It was no different for his wife, whose recent promotion at work had meant they were like ships passing (occasionally) in the night.

Before John could turn the alarm off, a notification flashed on the OLED watch screen:

Dinner for 2 people booked at Antonio’s Restaurant, 7pm tonight.

“Hey… I didn’t book dinner…?” slowly, a flicker of recognition crossed John’s face as he realised the booking had been made on his behalf by his “assistant”. His head was saying he couldn’t afford to take the time out, but before he could think of an excuse, he knew that his (and his wife’s) Google Calendar had been checked for a free slot by their Google Assistants.

A half-baked introduction to a sci-fi story? Perhaps, but unless you’ve managed to avoid the news recently, you’ll have seen that at Google’s I/O conference, Sundar Pichai demonstrated one of Google’s latest developments: Google Duplex. The demo (albeit recorded conversations, rather than live interactions) illustrated Duplex’s AI capabilities by contacting a hair salon and making an appointment on behalf of a client. To the approval of the I/O attendees, the artificial “hmmm” and “errrr” helped convince the hair salon staff member it was a ‘real’ person they were dealing with, and to be fair, it did sound very credible.

Although fictional, the scenario outlined at the start of this post, could well be achievable when you integrate Duplex’s capabilities with other apps and wearables into an overarching solution. These solutions aren’t limited to Google, but to continue the theme, you could go further still; perhaps a Waymo autonomous car is scheduled to pick you up and drive you to the restaurant. Don’t worry about a baby-sitter - an automated Google search and check of reviews of local childcare professionals has been performed, and a sitter booked.

Sounds great? The initial posts about Google Duplex on social media appeared to be positive, and my first reaction was “when can I get it?” There is no denying this is big step forward in terms of technical capability, and the number of applications, particularly when considering users with greater accessibility requirements, this technology could be a real enabler.

However (you knew this was coming), it didn’t take long for the ‘less positive’ stories and posts to surface. Concerns around deceit, privacy, and the potential impact to jobs were probably to be expected (note: Google has since confirmed the technology will explicitly let users know when they are interacting with a machine).

From a productivity perspective, it would be helpful if the assistant could keep contacting the establishment on your behalf if the phone line was busy. Although a counter-argument is that, unlike my sci-fi scenario above, you’ve still got to instruct the AI to contact the hair salon/restaurant etc. on your behalf - why not just make the call? And there’s the rub for me - it reminds me of David Byrne’s fantastic article ‘Eliminating the Human’ where he outlines the case that we are creating a world with a decreasing amount of human interaction. Part of his theory is that this may be due to the personality types of the people responsible for creating software solutions that tend to aim to eliminate the need to speak to another person.

Google Duplex is a prime example of this; if you give me the choice of phoning someone to make an appointment, my natural tendency would be: can I send an email? Fill out a contact form? It’s not that we can’t call people, but if there’s another option, we’ll take it. So is Google Duplex, and similar technologies that remove the human social element, really benefiting us?

I highly recommend taking a look at David Byrne’s article, he makes an eloquent argument, exploring this far greater depth.

Before you go and do that though, why not give your local restaurant a call and book a table? I’m sure they’ll appreciate the business and the human interaction.

As a wise man once said: “It’s good to talk”

Bob Hoskins

Bob Hoskins - Fronted the ‘It’s Good to Talk’ BT Campaign in the 1990s