Google's Human-Sounding, Reservation-Making Robots Are Sometimes Just Humans [UPDATED]

Update, May 24, 2019: As it happens, sometimes Google's Duplex A.I. sounds eerily human because the caller is, in fact, a human. The New York Times has more on the feature, which recently became available on a "larger number of Android devices and iPhones," after its limited release last year; of the several reservations it attempted to place for this story, only one was made solely using A.I.


Original story, May 9, 2018: We've tried to remain calm as robots continue to make inroads into jobs formerly staffed by humans, like vacuuming floors or flipping burgers at restaurants. But this latest addition to Google Assistant, Duplex, equipped with the capability to mimic human conversation, offers a frightening window into a dystopian future wherein robots just hang around and converse with each other.

Listen here and clutch your pearls:

Google offers this example of what seems to be a guy making a reservation at a restaurant. He "umms" a lot, and says words like "gotcha" and it would all seem perfectly normal if this sentient being was not in fact a robot set up by Google to respond in a certain way to various words. Google says in a totally calm matter: "For such tasks, the system makes the conversational experience as natural as possible, allowing people to speak normally, like they would to another person, without having to adapt to a machine... While sounding natural, these and other examples are conversations between a fully automatic computer system and real businesses."


Sure, it'll be great one day to be able to say, "Alexa, make me a reservation for dinner on Saturday at 8" (Do you ever say "please" to Alexa? We kind of tend to.) But how soon before these things can mimic our actual voices? What if they are programmed to start calling our banks and moving money out into Cayman Island accounts? Yes, Alexa could be a godsend for people who hate making phone calls. But is it fair to the people on the other line to not know that they're not talking to a real person? (This could also push telemarketing bots to a whole new level.) Some people may be excited about the dawn of new technology, but frankly we find this natural-sounding robot voice a bit off-putting, if not outright frightening.