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No Thanks, Google. I'll Speak for Myself.

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(Image credit: Shutter Stock / Phonlamai Photo)


Google, you complete me. On the other hand, maybe you shouldn't. Yesterday at its I/O conference, the search giant unveiled two creepy A.I. features: one that finishes your sentences in Gmail and another that literally makes phone calls for you, using a deceptively human voice.

As a tech geek I'm impressed, but as a human who values communication, I'm bummed out. The language you choose when writing and the intonations you make when speaking are your own. If a computer does the talking for you, then your "word" isn't really yours.

Whose words are they?

Google's new Smart Compose feature helps you finish your sentences. For example, if you start typing "Hav" at the beginning of a message, it suggests completing the phrase as "Haven't seen you in a while." If you start writing "Does next T," it suggests that you say "Does next Tuesday work for you?"

On the face of it, these suggestions seem innocuous. If you really meant to say "haven't seen you in a while," you can save yourself two dozen keystrokes by hitting tab. But what if, you really were thinking about saying "Haven't hung with you in a minute," which means essentially the same thing ("a minute" means a long time in context), but is devoid of personality?

Chances are that to, save yourself the effort, you'll just start accepting Google's suggestions to save yourself the hassle. All of a sudden your "voice" is the same as everyone else's.

If, as a recipient, you know that your conversation partner is using canned text, everything they say has less meaning. How excited can you be about getting birthday greetings on Facebook when you know that none of your so-called friends actually remembered your special day?

And while it's always good to save your fingers from extra strokes, your sentiments are meaningless if you can't even take 3 seconds to enter them on your own. I tried writing a sample termination letter using Gmail and here's what I got.


Smart Compose is fairly conservative right now. I tried typing some insults or highly-personal things and it didn't suggest anything. But I'm sure that Google will refine this tool so that it's much more aggressive in the future.

It's important to note that there's nothing inherently unethical about using auto suggestions, but it still takes "you" out of your communication.

"I suspect that Google’s automatic writing will be banal but not unethical. ," former New York Times Ethicist Randy Cohen told me. "Much email writing is already lackluster in both form and content."

To be fair, Smart Compose isn't the first feature to make suggestions. Gmail users on phones have seen suggested replies for a while now and a number of other platforms also suggest words and phrases. However, Smart Compose shows that this trend is growing and starting to transform how we write.

I'd like Google Assistant to make some soul-sucking calls. Perhaps it can call and argue with the insurance company.

I have a bot holding on line three

Soon computers will go beyond writing and literally speak for you. Demoing a feature it calls Duplex, Google played a recording of a customer calling a restaurant to reserve a table. The customer, who turns out to be a bot, sounds exactly like a real person, even using verbal ticks like "um" that make it sound completely realistic. It has a complete conversation, asking questions and responding to queries from the person at the restaurant.

You can check out the audio of a sample hair salon call below (courtesy of our sister site, Tom's Guide).

The immediate goal of Duplex is to perform rote tasks that really ought to happen online. Many restaurants already take reservations via the web so the Google Assistant is merely filling the gap by calling a small business that's still on analog.

Frankly, I'd like Google Assistant to make some of the more soul-sucking calls I have to endure. Perhaps it can call and argue with the insurance company about doctor bills. Then it can answer calls from a relative and feign interest in the gossip she wants to share. I'm sure it would be great for dealing with bill collectors.

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(Image credit: Shutter Stock / Phonlamai Photo)

However, it's much more likely that you'll be talking to a bot than having one speak for you. As it stands, most PC vendors make it difficult for you to reach person when dial tech support. How long before they replace every human in the call center with a realistic-sounding bot?

How can you plead your case to a bot or get a bot to do something outside of its script for you? What if you need to get in to see the doctor right away because you're feeling ill, but the bot on the other end of the line says that there are no appointments available today? It won't take pity on you and try to squeeze you in.

And if you think robocalls are annoying today, just wait until telemarketers and political candidates get ahold of Duplex (or something like it). Tell you what. I'll have my bot talk to your bot.

What do you think about Google Duplex and Smart Compose? Are you excited about the convenience or creeped out about losing your humanity? Share your thoughts in the comments below.   

  • orkbrother
    Someone is a bit paranoid...
    Reply
  • Giroro
    It's all a conspiracy to pass the Turing test. At some point, Google must have realized that it's a lot easier to make a people speak like robots than it is to make robots speak like people.
    Reply
  • sadsteve
    "How can you plead your case to a bot or get a bot to do something outside of its script for you?"

    Heh, you've obviously hadn't had to call your cable company tech support lately!! It seems the vast majority of the front line tech support is just following a script and if you're a special case you're hosed.
    Reply
  • zpiltch
    If a bot makes a restaurant reservation for me, am I less likely to show up? The ease of the process makes for a lower degree of commitment. My wife makes her own birthday and greeting cards, which are highly personalized and loved by the recipients, not just because of the personalization and skill, but because all that effort says love. If we don't personalize our prose, the lack communicates a lack of caring.
    Reply
  • 10tacle
    Yesterday at its I/O conference, the search giant unveiled two creepy A.I. features: one that finishes your sentences in Gmail and another that literally makes phone calls for you, using a deceptively human voice. As a tech geek I'm impressed, but as a human who values communication, I'm bummed out.

    And people wonder, people of Gen X/Y or earlier generations specifically, wonder why so many younger people have no interpersonal communication skills or language communication skills having grown up on "smart" technology to do their thinking for them (not all, but a disturbing number increase trend). Orwells' 1984 is here folks. Let's also not forget the other mind control central authority/bot population control movies that followed afterward: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dystopian_films
    Reply
  • 10tacle
    20955491 said:
    If a bot makes a restaurant reservation for me, am I less likely to show up? The ease of the process makes for a lower degree of commitment .... the lack communicates a lack of caring.

    You get it. Most of my life and career has been about interpersonal communication and developing relationships with customers. If you remember a customer's family name and birthdays and send cards thanking them for your business, you'll get more of it. Guaranteed. Simple things, but too complicated for today's "smart phone convenience one touch solution" society cares about.

    It means more in smaller cities, and less in the hustle and bustle of faster moving cities where no strangers even speak to each other sitting next to each other in a NYC bar stool diner. It's sad really. Humanity is in the middle of de-evolutionism. We did not get where we are as modern humans by being unsocial.
    Reply
  • Solandri
    Someone at Google needs to spend a couple hours reading the Damn you autocorrect! website.

    This also has implications for police investigations. Emails (at least those composed on gmail) can no longer be considered evidence of the author's intent. The author of an "incriminating" email can now claim they meant to type something different, but Smart Compose suggested something which they misread and thought was what they intended to type, but actually meant something completely different.
    Reply
  • computerguy72
    My mother lost her ability to speak and Duplex could potentially enrich her and her families lives in lots of positive ways. Millions of people who have various issues that prevent what most of us would consider a routine task could easily be helped dramatically by this. I told mom about this and she is sooo excited for the future.
    Reply
  • geekinchief
    I totally get the benefit of having a computer voice for people who have difficulty (or can't) speak. Stephen J. Hawking's life would have been far different without his computer voice.

    But, in my mind, the question isn't: should a computer vocalize your thoughts, but rather, should it choose your words for you. That applies whether the words are delivered by audio or text.
    Reply
  • Verrin
    Time earns respect. By this, I mean, if you're giving up your time, it shows you care. People take notice. Did you write a quick email to thank someone? Or even worse, did you let Google write that gesture for you? Or did you get up, drive to the person's house, and thank them in person? Of these options, most people will agree, that the one that required the most effort gave the most impact.

    It's important to keep this in mind if you ever intend to build meaningful relationship with others. People will take notice when you set aside time for them.
    Reply