Google Duplex is not creepy

After Google announced Google Duplex

This week, Google announced that the Google Assistant would be able to phone restaurants and shops for you, in order to make reservations or request information like holiday opening hours.

And predictably, some people don’t like it. Which is fair enough – in the context of a world where online harassment is common and largely unpoliced, free software can create convincing videos of people doing things they never did, and homes are full of ‘smart’ devices that log everything and can be hacked without any real effort, distrust is a pretty obvious reaction to a computer that can phone you up and convincingly impersonate a human.

Except, it can’t do that. Not unless you work in a restaurant. Google have not built an artificial mind and forced it to work as a PA forever like some kind of Black Mirror plotline. Duplex works so well precisely because it can only handle three different conversations. Similar technology could be used for harm, but not using it for good won’t prevent that. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle, but that’s an argument for proceeding with caution: we all know the genie is in there. Someone will let it out one day and we won’t be ready if we ignore the problem now.

And there are problems. But the ones I can see are neither huge nor insurmountable, and I would hate to see such a beneficial service killed by reactionary fear. It’s absurd that we built an AI to phone restaurants before we built a platform that just handled it straightforwardly, but the ‘simple’ solution just can’t work in the real world – at least, not without one corporation controlling the platform and its data. That, to me, would be a far worse outcome for privacy than Google Duplex. That’s where we are with Facebook, and look how that’s going.

Instead, we live in a world where most restaurants and shops can only really be dealt with by phone – which is very convenient and nice, but (to varying degrees) it doesn’t work for deaf people, introverts, anyone with a speech impediment or social anxiety, or people from Glasgow. Those people have every right to a nice dinner and this makes it possible – or at least much easier. It’s a huge leap forward for accessibility. Please let’s not kill it because somebody finds it icky. That would be no better than banning trans people from using public bathrooms.