Google has revealed a "terrifying" new technology that you could use without ever knowing it.
Among a host of announcements at its annual IO conference, it revealed that it had been working on a tool called "Duplex". It is an artificially intelligence assistant that can call people up and interact with them – without anyone ever knowing they were speaking to a robot.
On stage, for instance, Google CEO Sundar Pichai showed how the bot could call people up and book a hairdressers' appointment. It went through the entire process of booking it – referring to the human as its "client" – without the person on the other end of the call ever realising that they were talking to a robot.
The AI assistant even deployed pauses and "ums" and "mmm-hmms" to sound more human in conversation with real people.
Google says Duplex is able to understand "complex sentences, fast speech, and long remarks" and so naturally converse and make an appointment, before sending the user a notification to confirm the booking.
"We really want to work hard to get this right," said Mr Pichai.
Chris Messina – the product designer probably most famous for inventing the hashtag during his time at Twitter – described the Duplex technology as "the most incredible, terrifying thing".
Various ethical and practical questions might arise from the new technology. Numerous commentators wondered how the robots would talk to each other if they happened to be called by another bot, and whether they would be required to identify themselves as robots if they were asked.
The company also demonstrated how it was developing tools that could construct whole bots out of people's voices. It showed John Legend recording just a few choice phrases, for instance – which were then synthesised using artificial intelligence into a voice that could be made to say anything, and still sound like the singer.
It said it had already generated six new voices this way. That could mean that the Google voice that calls you using Duplex could have any voice – making it hard to recognise when it is not a real person.
The rest of the conference saw Google reveal a whole host of other AI-powered features. They include Smart Compose, which allows computers to put together messages on their owners behalf, by learning how they write and what they discuss; and new Photos tools that can automatically improve photos and then suggest who to send them to.
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