Ethics Concerns over Human-sounding Google Assistant

Fears over the potential of AI (artificial intelligence) have returned to the fore following the very natural conversations of the new Google digital assistant.

While the unveiling of the natural-sounding robo-assistant by the tech giant this week wowed some observers, it left others fretting over the ethics of how the human-seeming software might be used.

Google chief Sundar Pichai played a recording of the Google Assistant independently calling a hair salon and a restaurant to make bookings – interacting with staff who evidently didn’t realise they were dealing with artificial intelligence software, rather than a real customer.

While booking a table for four at 6:00pm, the robo-assistant tends to the phone call in a human-sounding voice complete with “speech disfluencies” such as “ums” and “uhs.”

“This is what people often do when they are gathering their thoughts,” Google engineers Yaniv Leviathan and Yossi Matias said in a Duplex blog post.

Enhanced with “Duplex” technology that let it engage like a real person, the unveiling during the internet giant’s annual developers conference this week in its hometown of Mountain View, California, was for some unsettling, Gadgets360 writes.

Google pitched the enhanced assistant as a potential boon to busy people and small businesses which lack websites customers can use to make appointments.

Google Duplex is an important development and signals an urgent need to figure out proper governance of machines that can fool people into thinking they are human, according to Kay Firth-Butterfield, head of the AI and machine learning project at the World Economic Forum’s Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

“These machines could call on behalf of political parties and make ever more convincing recommendations for voting,” Firth-Butterfield reasoned.

“Will children be able to use these agents and receive calls from them?”

At a time of heightened concerns about online privacy, there were also worries about what kind of data digital assistants might collect and who gets access to it.

“My sense is that humans in general don’t mind talking to machines so long as they know they are doing so,” read a post credited to Lauren Weinstein in a chat forum below the Duplex blog post.

Other observers contended there was an ethical breach to not letting people know they were conversing with software.

While AI is undoubtedly the future, it remains unclear just how well we’re prepared to adjust to it.

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