Eliyahu Sigel

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Finding Yourself in Artificial Intelligence

Google shows us humanity in simple conversations

At Google IO (2018), Google Duplex was both announced and demoed. Duplex allows vocal phone communication between Google Assistant and the person that picks up at the end of the line. In this way, Google Assistant can make basic appointments for its users. For example, making a dinner reservation. This in itself may not surprise you. However, what is surprising is that Duplex may teach us more about humans than it does about artificial intelligence.

Duplex is so advanced that it is difficult for the untrained ear to determine whether it is a human or robot at the end of the line. The reason for this is that Duplex enables Google Assistant to have a natural conversation, and intermittently say ‘ummm’ just like a person would.

I would like to pause a moment to think about ‘ummm’. As a kid, I was told not to use the phrase. Supposedly, it makes us sound stupid and slow; as if we have no idea what to say. So why did Google Assistant use ‘umm’ and why is it so surprising that it did? While ‘umm’ is frowned upon by educators globally, it is inherently human. This element of humanity is what made it so unexpected when Duplex said ‘umm’.

This phrase is fascinating because it is representative of what we perceive separates us from computers. Humans use ‘umm’ while they are thinking. The phrase in itself means nothing, but it allows our brain to have time to come up with the next appropriate thing to say. We think computers should have no reason to say ‘umm’, because we think that computers should not have to pause to think, even though they often do.

Moreover, ‘umm’ as a phrase seems pointless. The term does not move a conversation forward. It conveys little information other than the fact that the umm-ing party is thinking about what to say. In contrast, we perceive computers and technology in general to always be doing something, with a clear end goal. Computers should help us get stuff done. Our microwave heats up our food, our car gets us around, Alexa tells us what the weather is. When a computer does something that seems pointless, it’s surprising.

The genius of Assistant’s ‘umm’ is that Duplex’s developers understood that these phrases, which seem completely pointless, are actually one of the most defining characteristics of human speech. Duplex could say “Book me an appointment between 10AM and 12PM,” with no hesitations, ums, or pauses. However, It’s been specifically trained not to. Unlike humans, machines are programmed to get specific tasks done quickly. We need to gather our thoughts, remember why we called and then tell the person on the phone what we are looking for.

Google and other tech companies are trying to build cutting edge Artificial Intelligence. As Duplex demonstrates, intelligence through computation is not enough to make a machine seem human. Through the process of making machines sound human, we have discovered what makes a conversation sound human. Now the question becomes, will artificial intelligence soon become inseparable from human intelligence? Ummm, you tell me.

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