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What Is Google Duplex and The Controversy Surrounding It?

Google Duplex has been in the news recently for a variety of reasons. We will get down to these reasons in this post but first of all, what is Google Duplex? What is the controversy surrounding it?

The word Duplex will give off the idea of a building but Google Duplex is far from it.

Google Duplex, is a Google Assistant feature in which a human-sounding voice can book appointments and reservations over the phone. Google Duplex wowed the audience at the  Google I/O developers conference weeks ago. But as soon as the euphoria died down many questions were raised.

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What Google Duplex Can Do

Even though Google have not expressed in details all that Duplex can do. The are holding the details as the prepare to launch the technology. Google, however, allows tech-enthusiasts to have a feel of what Duplex can do on their A.I blog.

According to the blog post, Google Duplex  is a “new technology for conducting natural conversations to carry out “real world” tasks over the phone. The technology is directed towards completing specific tasks, such as scheduling certain types of appointments. 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”.

Duplex can dynamically converse with employees on the other end of the line, responding to unexpected questions in real time with the intonation and mannerisms of an actual person.

During the Google I/O developers conference, a demonstration was put on on stage, the Google Duplex spoke with a hair salon receptionist, mimicking the “ums” and “hmms” pauses of a normal human speech. In the second demo, Duplex chatted with a restaurant employee to book a table. The audience of software coders cheered.

Google Duplex

End to End how Duplex works.
A user asks the Google Assistant for an appointment, which the Assistant then schedules by having Duplex call the business.

For users, Google Duplex is making supported tasks easier. Instead of making a phone call, the user simply interacts with the Google Assistant, and the call happens completely in the background without any user involvement.

In To The Duplex Brain

Google Duplex

Photo Credit : Google AI blog.
Incoming sound is processed through an ASR system. This produces text that is analyzed with context data and other inputs to produce a response text that is read aloud through the TTS system.

To make Duplex sound natural, Google has even attempted to replicate the imperfection of natural human speech. Google Duplex’s conversations sound natural thanks to advances in understandinginteractingtiming, and speaking.

Below is :

Duplex scheduling a hair salon appointment:

Duplex calling a restaurant:

Of the two calls Google played on stage during the I/O conference keynote, the second was significantly more complex with a non-native English speaker on the other side of the phone and a conversation that went off the rails rather quickly. The employee thought a request for a reservation at 7:00 was actually one for seven people, but Duplex was able to roll with the unexpected redirect. It answered the employee’s question and still managed to complete the task.

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According to Google “at the core of Duplex is a recurrent neural network (RNN) designed to cope with these challenges, built using TensorFlow Extended (TFX). To obtain its high precision, we trained Duplex’s RNN on a corpus of anonymized phone conversation data. The network uses the output of Google’s automatic speech recognition (ASR) technology, as well as features from the audio, the history of the conversation, the parameters of the conversation (e.g. the desired service for an appointment, or the current time of day) and more. We trained our understanding model separately for each task, but leveraged the shared corpus across tasks. Finally, we used hyperparameter optimization from TFX to further improve the model”.

Take a look at the video below, the demonstration of Google Duplex at the conference.

Google Assistant making appointment at a salon and a reservation for a restaurant.

Limitations Of Duplex

Google Duplex sounds amazing well at least that  is what the demos showed. Duplex  has great potential but Artificial intelligence can never replace a human.

Google Duplex

Google Assistant is there to handle task.

Google says Duplex “is capable of carrying out sophisticated conversations and it completes the majority of its tasks fully autonomously,” but the key word there is “majority.” Based on what we’ve seen, Duplex works best when it’s performing a very specific task (i.e. scheduling an appointment or reservation at a very specified time) and less suited to open-ended tasks like follow-up questions on specific services.

Google says Duplex is self-monitoring so that it can detect when there’s a task that it can’t complete all by itself, such as if booking an appointment offers too many complex options.

Duplex has been designed to perform a limited range of very specific tasks. Google’s AI technology isn’t smart enough to learn to do many other things quickly.

No matter the technology, humans are not yet ready to hand over all their activities to robots.

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Controversy : Issues of Ethics

Robots do make calls, but Duplex is not just like you usual robocalls. The naturalness in the voice of Duplex is what really thrilled the audience  I/O conference. Duplex does represent a new level of sophistication, which raises all sorts of questions. During the presentation audience were wowed by how smooth Duplex handle the intricacies of a normal day conversation. The people on the other side never knew they talking to an Artificial intelligence.

While it’s a huge technological achievement for Google, but it also opens up a Pandora’s box of ethical and social challenges. A.I ethicist interviewed on the Verge raised some pertinent questions.

For example, shouldn’t google be obligated to tell people that they are talking to humans? Should technology that mimics humans erode our trust in what we see and hear? And is this another example of tech privilege, where those in the know can offload boring conversations they don’t want to have to a machine, while those receiving the calls (most likely low-paid service workers) have to deal with some idiot robot?

At first it wasn’t clear if Google will informed Duplex call recipients that they are talking to robots before the reason for such calls are made known. After this issues where raised Google have responded, Google product managers indicated to Cnet earlier this week that they would look into some way for Google Duplex to identify itself, the company came out with a more definitive statement as Google I/O wrapped on May 10 that Duplex would be built “with disclosure built-in.”

According to Bloomberg, Scott Huffman, an executive on Google’s Assistant team, said the response to Duplex was mixed. Some people were blown away by the technical demos, while others were concerned about the implications. Huffman said he understands the concerns. Although he doesn’t endorse one proposed solution to the creepy factor: Giving it an obviously robotic voice when it calls. “People will probably hang up,” he said.

In an interview on Wednesday, Huffman suggested the machine could say something like, “I’m the Google assistant and I’m calling for a client.” More experiments are planned for this summer, he noted.

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Controversy : Demo Presentation Doctored?

Google Duplex Lead developers.

Google Duplex lead Yaniv Leviathan and engineering manager Matan Kalman posted a picture of themselves eating a meal “booked through a call from Duplex.”

During his keynote at the Google I/O, Google CEO Sundar Pichai noted multiple times that we were listening to real calls and real conversations (“What you will hear is the Google Assistant actually calling a real salon.”). The company made the same claims in a blog post (“While sounding natural, these and other examples are conversations between a fully automatic computer system and real businesses.”).

Top Tech companies like to show off their latest innovations and major breakthroughs, especially in an area like artificial assistant technology, they typically can’t wait to show them off in as many scenarios as possible. When Apple launched Siri or Microsoft launched Cortana, they showed off their respective capabilities at great length.

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Google never expected the Duplex demo presentation to bring this Amount of controversy. The presentation was meant to dazzle and wowed the audience but it has raised a lot of questions. Axios have been on the forefront of asking those questions. The asked Google lots of question concerning the presentation and they have refuse to respond.

The Demo was under a control environment and this thus raised some serious issues. Google has so far declined to disclose the name of the businesses it worked with and whether it had permission to record those calls. This may be due to the fact that California is a  is a two-consent state, so our understanding is that permission to record these calls would have been necessary (unless those calls were made to businesses in a state with different laws). So aside the ethical questions, there are also a few legal questions here.

Some of the oddities noted are :

  • The businesses never identify themselves
  • The humans picking up the phone never give their names
  • There’s no ambient background noise
  • The reservation-takers never request information. No contact phone number. No name.

Axios stated that they called over two dozen hair salons and restaurants — including some in Google’s hometown of Mountain View — and every one immediately gave the business name.

There also does not seem to be ambient noise in either recording, such as hair dryers or plates clattering. We heard that in most of the businesses we called, but not in all.

Finally, neither the hair salon nor the restaurant ask for the customer’s phone number or any other contact information.

Axios asked Google for the name of the hair salon or restaurant, in order to verify both that the businesses exist and that the calls were not pre-planned. We also said that we’d guarantee, in writing, not to publicly identify either establishment (so as to prevent them from receiving unwanted attention).

A longtime Google spokeswoman declined to provide either name.

Axios added “We also asked if either call was edited, even perhaps just cutting the second or two when the business identifies itself. And, if so, were there other edits? The spokeswoman declined comment, but said she’d check and get back to us. She didn’t.

So we sent a new message, this time also copying another member of Google’s communications team. The spokeswoman replied by saying she’d get right back to us.

That was more than a day ago.”

We can’t say completely that Google is lying about Duplex. But they are hiding a lot from us, We will all have to wait to see if Google Duplex will work as it did at the demo when it is finally launched.




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