Google Duplex is a preview of a future we will either love or fear


If you haven’t seen and heard the jaw-dropping performance of Google’s Duplex natural language virtual assistant that took place at this year’s Google I/O, the first thing that you need to do is watch/listen to the Google Assistant AI system make a call — first to a hair salon and then to a restaurant (where the actual human being is a second-language speaker with a heavy accent). Check out the video below. After that, you need to either a) marvel at the future of technology or b) worry about the future of mankind. Or a combination of the two.

Google Duplex’s performance is very impressive on a technical level and it is easy to appreciate from a ‘good grief, that’s awesome’ perspective, but Duplex also has some implications that you may not have considered. We’ve been doing a little of the worrying for you, and we thought we’d share that with you. Because we’re nice that way.

The Rise of the Machines

What you might not have considered with Duplex’s ability to simulate a human being in conversation is that Google might be about to put a lot of people out of work. Robocalls are one thing, but what are people who work in call centres, cold-calling or providing technical support for a wide range of the world’s products and services, going to do when an AI system capable of making or fielding (kinda) complex calls enters the market.

It will be almost impossible for humans to compete against Duplex, should it ever be deployed into these market sectors. Replacing a room full of people who need to be paid, suffer logistical problems and who, frankly, need to eat, drink, and go to the bathroom will be a no-brainer for most companies. The main obstacle will be cost — in places where labour is cheaper than the outlay for a Google Duplex-powered call centre, jobs will be safe. The moment using a machine costs less than paying human staff, we’ll see changeovers taking place. The end result is one that has been long feared — human beings being put out of work and there’s no reason to believe that it’ll stop with call centres.

The systems that Duplex is based on are likely to advance over time, potentially taking over duties reserved for secretarial workers, reception workers, bank tellers, and personal assistants, to consider just a short list. The service industries are also under threat, eventually. Staff who take food orders or dispense room keys might find themselves out of work. If Google manages to convince Duplex to deliver food using a robotic body, you can eventually kiss waiters goodbye as well. Not literally, they throw you out for doing that.

Of course, we’d do well not to get too carried away with the doomsday prognostications. Technology has been making jobs redundant for years. Electronic publishing killed manual typesetting. Combustion engines killed carriage driving. Spreadsheets didn’t kill accounting, but they probably had a marked effect on eraser sales. The point is, new jobs will emerge (more on that below). One could, for example, go from being a call-centre agent to a Google Duplex technician, perhaps.

Gazing Into The Future

Business and private users of Duplex are not going to see it that way, however, provided they’re not in any industries that the AI system is likely to disrupt. Don’t like calling your doctor to make appointments? Can’t stand the idea of checking the status of an online or banking account? You may never have to make a phone call about that sort of thing ever again. Introverts the world over, rejoice. Quietly and in the corner. We know what you’re like, and it’s okay.

Businesses will also be pleased at the change, as Duplex offers the chance at greater efficiency which will, likely, lead to greater customer satisfaction. Callers to a company hotline will never have to go to voicemail, they can call at all hours of the day and night, and provided Duplex has been well trained, it should be very capable of handling anything all but the most deranged of end users can provide — yes, we know just how mad humans can get when on the phone. You’ve seen it, overheard it, performed it, laughed at it, cried about it, or a combination of it all.

But what it all ends up being is time. Time to do things that you might otherwise neglect — it’s a lot easier to get on with your day when you’re not dreading setting off a panic attack by making an appointment on the phone or when you don’t have to dedicate man-hours better spent building the physical aspects of a business, answering (possibly inane) questions from someone who may or may not turn into a paying customer. If you’ve got a reliable AI that will keep patrons happy, why not use it?

Something To Be Afraid Of?

Google absolutely has plans for Duplex, with initial testing in the real world taking place alongside Google Assistant. It’s coming, barring regulation by governments and industries bent on protecting the status quo. Even then, change is on the horizon — as Agent Smith in The Matrix says, Duplex is “the sound of… inevitability.” But it doesn’t have to be inevitably bad.

You see, we’ve had this conversation before, as far back as the automation of car manufacturing. Systems that displace humans don’t replace them outright. They open up new avenues of human experience and behaviour. There may not be as many people assembling cars or answering the phones but there are people tasked with making sure that those systems don’t go haywire. Repairs and maintenance, programming and installation are all avenues that can be explored that don’t, in this example, involve being screamed at by an angry customer.

The potential job losses from Duplex will be offset by new jobs, which don’t involve facing people directly (who are often horrible to deal with). We are far more likely to find ourselves working alongside AI and robotic solutions than we are to find ourselves being replaced by them. And if a day comes when all human work is replaced by robots, we’re facing one of three scenarios.

Either we’re looking at the Terminator future where humans are fighting for their lives against the machines (not good, unlikely unless we’re awfully silly buggers up to that point), or we’ll find ourselves living in a utopia of sorts where everything is free time and leisure activities (a little more likely, comes with the benefit of world peace). The third scenario? That one was predicted by that dystopian animated classic: Wall-E. Let’s not do that one, shall we?


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