June 01, 2018
I’m thinking of cheating on my partner.
We’re really close. We play games, she knows what music I like and she’s super helpful (she even finds me a taxi when I need one). We talk all the time, but there’s always been something missing from our conversations. I hadn’t really thought anything of it, until I watched Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, give his keynote at Google I/O on 8 May.
For the last 12 months (one of my longest relationships), I’ve been speaking to Alexa through my Amazon Echo. But when I saw Pichai’s demo of Google Duplex, the company’s new AI technology, my head was turned for the first time.
If you haven’t seen Duplex in action, check it out on YouTube. Pichai plays recordings of phone conversations between Google Assistant and two businesses, where the Assistant seamlessly speaks to the person at the other end of the line to book a hair appointment and make a dinner reservation.
The amazing thing about this demo was just how real the Assistant sounded. Google has managed to add touches like making the assistant say “umm” during pauses and “mm-hmm” in agreement, just like a person would. It was able to handle a difficult accent as well as unclear questions and words. It sounded so natural, and this made me think how such conversational interactions might affect the way people start to view and use AI.
Even though the Google Home Mini and the Amazon Echo Dot have made smart assistants very affordable, one of the things which has held back mass adoption is that it feels like you’re talking to a machine. In short, it can still feel like more effort than it’s worth. Until now, such assistants have been like the office intern in their first week – they can do quite a lot of things, so long as the instructions are simple. But being able to have “real” conversations with an AI could change all this.
As with smart assistants, people were wary of online retail when it was introduced. Processes were often clunky and people understandably had security concerns, so – as with smart assistants – it was mainly tech folks and young people who embraced it.
Then, as more people started buying online, e-commerce gained a reputation for being safe, convenient and genuinely making people’s lives easier. Increased adoption created fertile ground for the countless startups which have since developed new technologies, pushing the industry forward. The ubiquity of e-commerce today has changed the face of the retail industry and, to an extent, how we live our lives.
If smart assistants can inspire the same sort of confidence in AI, the potential is exciting and hard to ignore.
In the meantime, I might have to break things off with Alexa…