The selfishness of Google Duplex

Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

The more technology advances, the clearer it becomes that our smartphones are no longer about conversing but more about transfers of information. This was evident at Google’s I/O keynote, where the company unveiled that its AI can now make phone calls on your behalf, booking salon appointments or restaurant reservations. The demo was stunning, both because of how human this next-level chatbot sounded and how dystopian the world would be with our robot imposters flooding the phone lines. But as I walked out of the conference yesterday, I couldn’t stop thinking about the person on the other end of the line. When did human service workers become Google’s to experiment on?

When did human service workers become Google’s to experiment on?

My first job was in the summer of 2004. I waitressed, took phone orders, and packed takeout food at my parents’ restaurant. That job has taught me to have empathy for those working in the service industry. There will always be a subset of people who are inexplicably rude, whether it’s by verbally harassing waiters or refusing to tip because they didn’t like the food. Modern technology has further enabled our entitlement, with the promise of apps and services that can customize, personalize, and cater to our every need, no matter how small. This has led us to disregard the humans fulfilling our demands.

Last fall, Seamless released a series of ads that highlighted over-the-top special instructions its customers made to restaurants and delivery folks. The branding agency called it “hilarious.” I think the people reading these instructions would say otherwise.

Bartle Bogle Hegarty

With Google’s AI assistant making calls on our behalf, I worry it will become easier for us to abuse small businesses. If it’s as simple as telling Google Duplex to make an appointment, it’s just as easy to constantly reschedule or not show up altogether because there’s no connection between you and the human worker who picked up the phone to arrange your reservation. You don’t feel bad for the number of requests and changes when someone (or something) else is doing it for you. You don’t even have to say “Please.”

Adding a layer of communication between businesses and their customers can also financially impact the former. On our way home from Google I/O yesterday, my colleague Nick Statt told me about how he used Facebook’s M to order breakfasts every day to test the service. After about a week, the shop owner recognized Nick and asked him to order direct if he could, because M was processing his request through Eat24, which takes a cut from every order.

In many ways, technology has widened the gap between the rich and the poor and has coarsened the behavior one exudes toward the other. Never was this more clear than when former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was caught on video berating a driver on his platform for asking about why UberBlack prices had dropped. When you think of the on-demand economy as just that — something you get on-demand, regardless of who fulfills it as long as you’re paying — it’s easier to forget about underpaid employees working around the clock to make your wishes happen.

Google is billing Duplex as a way to promote Time Well Spent™ and lessen language barrier issues so that we can all be free to engage with the world outside our digital screens. That’s one optimistic end of the spectrum. In reality, it’s more likely that this technology, like others before it, will just encourage us to further distance and focus only on ourselves in the world within a bubble.

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