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Google is being vague with disclosure in early real-world Duplex calls

Google is being vague with disclosure in early real-world Duplex calls

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Google has begun rolling out its futuristic Duplex feature, which can automatically make voice calls to restaurants and other businesses on a user’s behalf, to a small group of Pixel owners in “select” cities around the US. VentureBeat managed to test out Duplex in the real world and recorded what the experience is like when initiating a call through Google Assistant. That part seems fairly straightforward. But the exchange between Duplex and a restaurant on the other side of the call is raising some early concerns about transparency.

Watch the video above, and you’ll notice that Duplex never identifies itself as a robot. It never tells the person taking the call that they’re interacting with an automated system. “Hi, I’m calling to make a reservation for a client. I’m calling from Google, so the call may be recorded,” is what Duplex says to begin the conversation. And that little bit — about the call coming “from Google” and potentially being recorded — is the only disclosure that it ever provides. From then on, Duplex handles the requested dinner reservation smoothly.

This disclosure doesn’t match up with a promotional video for Duplex that Google posted to YouTube back in June. In that example (embedded below), Duplex makes it very clear that it’s a bot. “Hi, I’m the Google Assistant calling to make a reservation for a client. This automated call will be recorded.” That’s a much better approach. You’re talking to the Google Assistant. It’s an automated call, and it is being recorded; no maybes about it. Luther Lowe noted the disparity on Twitter.

But there’s a reason for it: this particular Duplex call was actually handled by a human, according to people familiar with the early tests. When a human operator at Google places a Duplex call, they don’t necessarily disclose anything about Google Assistant or note it’s an automated call. Because it’s not. Not entirely, anyway. Google’s Duplex tests involve a mix of the two; some are led by Googlers, while others let the AI steer. The majority of calls are the latter and automated, from what I’m told.

Still, how are people supposed to know the difference? This call captured by VentureBeat could’ve easily been interpreted as Duplex running on its own. There are brief pauses after each response from the restaurant employee, and I’m hard pressed to tell this whole exchange apart from test calls that Google has released during Duplex’s development. The line between human and AI is very blurry here, and that speaks to how convincing Duplex can be. Keep in mind that for now, Google is only making Duplex reservations with partner restaurants and not any random spot you want.

Google says it’s very clear about when a Duplex call is totally automated, but some are handled by employees

After Google first revealed Duplex and the wow factor of its stunning demo wore off, people were quick to raise concerns about disclosure. When a robot can sound this close to a real person (complete with “um”s and “uh”s thrown in to heighten the illusion) there needs to be a very direct, immediate explanation from Duplex about what it is.

Google has said that it’s sticking to its word and will always make clear when humans pick up the phone to an AI helper on the other end. If it’s a person, the company believes simply saying the call is originating “from Google” is enough. Perhaps it is, but more details would always be better — such as always noting it’s Google Assistant calling. People might hang up, but at least they’ll have a clearer picture.

“We understand and value the discussion around Google Duplex — as we’ve said from the beginning, transparency in the technology is important,” a Google spokesperson told The Verge back in May. “We are designing this feature with disclosure built-in, and we’ll make sure the system is appropriately identified.”

Update November 26th 1:45PM ET: The article has been updated with more context around this particular test call of Duplex.