Trusting Google Duplex

I was interested to see how the big tech companies would adjust their PR message in light of recent tech controversies, but judging by Facebook’s F8 and Google I/O this week, the answer is not very much at all.

The standout item from Google I/O yesterday seems to be this extremely impressive demo of a bot pretending to be a person on a phone call, complete with fake “um”s and “ah”s (jump to 1h 56m):

A not unreasonable reaction: that’s technically marvellous but is it really fair to the person working on the other end of the line? And what about all the ways this could be exploited…? How might you prevent that?

No mention of this on stage though. And the audience sure seemed to lap it up! So either: 1. Google can’t think of any way that this might be abused. 2. They won’t. 3. They just don’t want to acknowledge that stuff by talking about it.

At the same time, the new version of Android has got “Digital Well Being controls”. Which, fair play. Credit where its due.

But it’s at best a gentle take on what @tristanharris was advocating for internally within Google back in 2014. Which means that the half-life of features with potentially negative consequences is many, many years.

Yet a computer that can convincingly talk like a human is now 100% inevitable; it’s absolutely coming, many permutations are going to get thrown against the wall to see what sticks.

I worked at Google for 8 years, and can attest that it takes time for views from the outside world to seep in. It’s like a small country, albeit with the clout of a large one. Giant tech company leaders are politicians, and as such react to public opinion.

So although it’s kind of a downer to witness some magical new tech breakthrough and immediately jump to pointing out its potential flaws, it seems like there’s almost a kind of civic duty to it.

It’s also worth saying that thinking about how new tech may be used or abused is an interesting thought experiment! If the capability seems inevitable, the application is not. That sounds like a decent groove for designers to sit in.

I hope that the recent tech reckoning turns out to be a good thing, and will lead to better products. But it don’t come for free.

However, I fear that we may never disabuse Google of the notion that the world’s biggest problem is taking a break to run an errand.

(I feel like the deep differences in the urban architectures of Jane Jacob’s Greenwich Village and Google’s Mountain View campus has a lot to answer for here. Of course errands are suboptimal… who wants to spend 20 mins each way snared in traffic on the 101?!)

But “a web of public respect and trust” seems to be what’s most obviously missing from the robo-call example, and the duplicity at its core is what makes it sit so uneasy. Trust being in such short supply right now is that makes it seem particularly tin eared.

Finally, this all reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut having a grand old time buying an envelope, which I’ll now quote generously in a showy display of the luxurious, unrestricted superiority of the blog format:

Anyway, I take my pages and I have this thing made out of steel, it’s called a paper clip, and I put my pages together, being careful to number them, too, of course. So I go downstairs, to take off, and I pass my wife, the photo journalist Jill Krementz, who was bloody high tech then, and is even higher tech now. She calls out, “Where are you going?” Her favorite reading when she was a girl was Nancy Drew mysteries, you know, the girl detective. So she can’t help but ask, “Where are you going?” And I say, “I am going out to get an envelope.” And she says, “Well, you’re not a poor man. Why don’t you buy a thousand envelopes? They’ll deliver them, and you can put them in a closet.” And I say, “Hush.”

So I go down the steps, and this is on 48th Street in New York City between Second Avenue and Third, and I go out to this newsstand across the street where they sell magazines and lottery tickets and stationery. And I know their stock very well, and so I get an envelope, a manila envelope. It is as though whoever made that envelope knew what size of paper I’m using. I get in line because there are people buying lottery tickets, candy, and that sort of thing, and I chat with them. I say, “Do you know anybody who ever won anything in the lottery?” And, “What happened to your foot?”

Finally I get up to the head of the line. The people who own this store are Hindus. The woman behind the counter has a jewel between her eyes. Now isn’t that worth the trip? I ask her, “Have there been any big lottery winners lately?” Then I pay for the envelope. I take my manuscript and I put it inside. The envelope has two little metal prongs for going through a hole in the flap. For those of you who have never seen one, there are two ways of closing a manila envelope. I use both of them. First I lick the mucilage—it’s kind of sexy. I put the little thin metal diddle through the hole—I never did know what they call them. Then I glue the flap down.

I go next to the postal convenience center down the block at the corner of 47th Street and Second Avenue. This is very close to the United Nations, so there are all these funny-looking people there from all over the world. I go in there and we are lined up again. I’m secretly in love with the woman behind the counter. She doesn’t know it. My wife knows it. I am not about to do anything about it. She is so nice. All I have ever seen of her is from the waist up because she is always behind the counter. But every day she will do something with herself above her waist to cheer us up. Sometimes her hair will be all frizzy. Sometimes she will have ironed it flat. One day she was wearing black lipstick. This is all so exciting and so generous of her, just to cheer us all up, people from all over the world.

So I wait in line, and I say, “Hey what was that language you were talking? Was it Urdu?” I have nice chats. Sometimes not. There is also, “If you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back to your little tinhorn dictatorship where you came from?” One time I had my pocket picked in there and got to meet a cop and tell him about it. Anyway, finally I get up to the head of the line. I don’t reveal to her that I love her. I keep poker-faced. She might as well be looking at a cantaloupe, there is so little information in my face, but my heart is beating. And I give her the envelope, and she weighs it, because I want to put the right number of stamps on it, and have her okay it. If she says that’s the right number of stamps and cancels it, that’s it. They can’t send it back to me. I get the right stamps and I address the envelope to Carol in Woodstock.

Then I go outside and there is a mailbox. And I feed the pages to the giant blue bullfrog. And it says, “Ribbit.”

And I go home. And I have had one hell of a good time.

Electronic communities build nothing. You wind up with nothing. We are dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something. We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.

— 09 May 2018