Photo 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.
Photo credit: Shutter Stock / Phonlamai Photo
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.
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.