By David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images.
Google C.E.O. Sundar Pichai’s demonstration of the company’s new virtual-assistant technology, unveiled at the company’s annual developer conference last week, was more unnerving than Pichai presumably intended it to be. Google Duplex, as the technology is called, represents a major leap forward in Silicon Valley’s efforts to produce robots that sound like people.
It can make phone calls to schedule appointments, say, or to reserve a table at a restaurant, using familiar human verbal tics and filler words—“uhm,” “mmhmm,” and “gotcha”—that make it eerily hard to tell that the voice on the other line is an artificial intelligence.
To show the tech in action, Pichai played a recording of the Google Assistant device—Google’s answer to Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa—calling and interacting with someone who was purportedly an employee at a hair salon to make an appointment. “What you’re going to hear is the Google assistant actually calling a real salon to schedule an appointment for you,” Pichai told the audience. “Let’s listen.”
The demo was indeed impressive. It was also pretty unsettling, as many people quickly noted. (“Horrifying,” wrote one critic.) But is it possible that the promise of Google’s advanced artificial-intelligence tech is too good to be true? As Axios noted Thursday morning, there was something a little off in the conversations the A.I. had on the phone with businesses, suggesting that perhaps Google had faked, or at least edited, its demo.
Unlike a typical business (Axios called more than two dozen hair salons and restaurants), the employees who answered the phone in Google’s demos don’t identify the name of the business, or themselves. Nor is there any ambient noise in Google’s recordings, as one would expect in a hair salon or a restaurant.
At no point in Google’s conversations with the businesses did the employees who answered the phone ask for the phone number or other contact information from the A.I. Further, California is a two-party consent state, meaning that both parties need to consent in order for a phone conversation to be legally recorded. Did Google seek the permission of these businesses before calling them for the purposes of the demo? Was it staged in the simulated manner of reality TV?
Google isn’t saying. When Axios reached out for comment to verify that the businesses existed, and that the calls weren’t set up in advance, a spokesperson declined to provide names of the establishments; when Axios asked if the calls were edited (even just to cut out the name of the business, to avoid unwanted attention), Google also declined to comment. The company did not immediately respond to a series of questions from the Hive.