Google’s human-mimicking Duplex AI will tell people it’s a robot

But tech experts have raised concerns about the ethical issues that surround it

Google AI
The Duplex voice assistant does a convincing impression of human speech
(Image credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Google has vowed to warn people who interact with its new human-duping Duplex artificial intelligence (AI) voice assistant, following an outcry over ethics.

The search engine giant stunned fans when it debuted its new AI system – which is able to talk to people over the phone by mimicking a human voice – at its annual tech conference in Mountain View, California, on Tuesday.

Google demonstrated Duplex by showcasing a conversation between the AI system and a hairdresser. The system, which was booking a hair appointment on behalf of a person, was able to successfully communicate over the phone with the unsuspecting hairdresser.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

While the technology has received praise for its convincing impression of human speech, The Daily Telegraph says that some observers believe it might be unethical to fool people on the other end of a phone call.

One tech expert, Zeynep Tufekci from the New York Times, said in a Tweet that she found the demonstration “horrifying”.

“Silicon Valley is ethically lost, rudderless and has not learned a thing”, she said.

See more

Responding to its critics, a Google spokesperson told The Verge that the firm plans to inform people who encounter the voice assistant that they’re talking to an automated system rather than a real person.

Duplex is still in an early phase of development. This will give the search giant time to address the AI system’s ethical issues before its official launch.

Ultimately, the company hopes that Duplex will develop into a system that might one day solve “accessibility problems,” The Guardian says. This could mean allowing hearing-impaired mobile users to book appointments over the phone, for example.

Google plans to run a small testing programme this summer, the newspaper says. This would allow users to make restaurant reservations and book hair appointments using the virtual assistant.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.