Tuesday, May 15, 2018

On the Duplex demo

Disclaimer: I worked for Google long ago, and I may work there again someday. I had nothing to do with Duplex.

The Google Duplex demo has caused some fairly heated & widespread reactions; to paraphrase, "The person on the other end doesn't know or consent to talking to a robot! This is a deceptive violation of their rights!" I think that I understand, a little, why people react this way, but on balance I find it logically ridiculous. I am also convinced that it will seem both logically and emotionally ridiculous to most people within a generation.

As someone in my 40s, I understand the relationship that 20th century people once had with their phones. I am old enough to remember "reach out and touch someone" being a thing that real people felt was the primary purpose of telephonic communication. However, over the course of my adult life, this use case has been utterly swamped by the rise of automated or semi-automated telephonic processes, constructed by immense and remorseless engines of bureaucratic modernity, that use the telephone as an electronic siphon to suck value out of my time: legally protected political robo-calling, flagrantly illegal commercial robo-calling, telemarketing driven by script-reading call center employees (who, in this role, are functionally biological components of a machine, not autonomous individuals), and a constant nagging flood of scam hangup calls.

Conversely, nearly all outbound phone calls that I make, except to close friends and family, now involve navigation through a robotic phone tree. In other words, I am interacting with a succession of artificial voices for many minutes before a usually-brief chat with a human being.

In other words, for any human being less than about 45 years of age, nearly all telephonic interactions in their adult life have been to a large degree robotic. It is hard to get up in arms because the robots are going to be slightly more fluent in the future. They have been getting more fluent all my life (for example, many phone systems can now recognize numbers that are spoken rather than dialed on a touch-tone pad). I don't care. Deep down, you probably don't either.

Search your feelings; you know it to be true. How many times in your life have you picked up the phone to a telemarketing call and thought to yourself, "Oh thank goodness, I am super glad to have been interrupted in this fashion because it's a human being talking to me rather than a robot? My heart brims over with joy!" None. Zero times. You have never thought this.

On the other hand, suppose you received a call that said: "Hey, just wanted to let you know that a recently deceased distant relative left you a one million dollar inheritance; a check and a letter with details will be arriving in your mailbox today. You don't have to do anything else but cash the check, thanks, take it easy!" You would not care whether the voice was a robot or a human being. You would be skeptical, but when you got the check and the letter, which said, "By the way, a robotic call was placed to your phone number earlier today to inform you that this letter would arrive so you wouldn't miss it," you would not think to yourself, "OMG, I feel so unbelievably violated because that voice was a robot! Fuck this stupid million dollar check and fuck the horse that it rode in on!"

The moral valence of a phone call is determined by the value that the participating parties get out of the call, not by whether one or both parties on the call are mediated by machines that are slightly more adept than the machines which existed in 1992.

Lastly, if the above doesn't convince you, here are two more quick reasons that the future will welcome talking bots:

  • People under 30 today ("millennials" or whatever you want to call them) hate making voice calls. They will probably welcome any opportunity to delegate this stupid chore.
  • People under 15 today will grow up taking bots for granted; for example, textual chatbots, or other types of bots in online games that they play. They will feel no horror at the idea that spoken-word bots can have warm, engaging voices.