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Artificial intelligence

People are freaking out about Google’s extremely human-sounding phone-call-making AI

After a public demonstration of its latest experiment in bots garnered disturbed reactions, Google says the AI will identify itself to call recipients as non-human.

Umm, aaaah: On Tuesday, Google announced Google Duplex, an eerily human-sounding AI that will work via Google Assistant to make appointments and reservations on your behalf by calling, say, a sushi restaurant and talking with whoever picks up to get you a table. Sample calls Google posted online (and played aloud to a live audience of thousands at its developer conference in Mountain View, California) even included appropriate “um” and “ah” sounds and did not indicate the bot would ever identify itself as anything but human.

People are talking: Once people had a little time to listen to the sample calls, many were less than thrilled. Responses ranged from creeped out to horrified. Zeynep Tufekci, a writer and faculty associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, was appalled, tweeting that it showed “Silicon Valley is ethically lost, rudderless and has not learned a thing.”

AI calling: Google now says that Duplex calls will let the person on the other end know that, despite its realistic sound, it’s actually an AI agent. 

When can I try it? Google says it’s going to start testing it within Google Assistant this summer for things like snagging restaurant reservations, booking hair salon appointments, and determining stores’ holiday hours.

Deep Dive

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The machine-learning tool could help researchers discover entirely new proteins not yet known to science.

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The lab trained a chatbot to learn from human feedback and search the internet for information to support its claims.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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