Viewpoint: The AI that the world doesn't deserve or need right now (or ever)

Tyrone Stewart

I am an advocate for the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in aspects of both our personal and professional lives. I own an Amazon Echo device – albeit one I received as a gift – and have been known to communicate with both Alexa and Google Assistant through my smartphone on occasion. And I think using AI is a great way, once the technology works well enough, to help moderate content on the internet on platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

Despite this, I can’t help but feel we are, slowly, edging toward a point of creating AI technology without any real purpose or reason to exist.

If it’s not yet clear what brought this feeling to the surface, let me now introduce Google Duplex into the discussion.

Last week, the internet behemoth Google unveiled its latest piece of virtual assistant technology at its annual I/O developer conference. Google describes this AI as being capable of “accomplishing real-world tasks over the phone”. As part of the presentation of the AI, Google showed off a recording of it booking an appointment at a hair salon – negotiating an appropriate slot for the user and displaying a few “umms” and “ahhs” as if it were actually a human. As you’d expect, the demonstration drew a big cheer from the audience present and a mixed response from everybody else across the internet and social media.

Since then, Google has confirmed that, if and when the technology is released, it will inform the person on the other end of the line that it isn’t a human.

Even with this confirmation, we are left with a few questions: how likely is it that people in places like hair salons and restaurants will actually appreciate talking to a robot? Is it too similar to the dodgy cold calls people get from machines about PPI every day? How far away is this from being a reality? What’s the point? Why do we need this?

More-than-ever, people are having discussions and making changes to help the way we live in this hyperconnected world. A world that is making us just that little bit unhealthier each day. And, with this technology, it won’t just be making demands across a room to a cylinder-shaped device, it’ll be not having the decency and courtesy to interact with another human being whose establishment you wish to visit.

I’m all here for the weather updates, the news bulletins, the calendar updates, and the random bits of trivia – but this phone-calling, appointment-booking AI has to be up there with one of the most pointless uses of the power that AI brings.

Of course, the AI is part of Google’s wider move of rebranding its research division as ‘Google AI’ – a move which has also seen Assistant improved to be able to have a more natural and flowing conversation with users, and has even been upgraded with a feature to promote good manners in younger users.

These things are positive developments in Google’s AI area, appointment-booking is a nothing development.

My issue with certain uses of AI runs a little deeper than just Google Duplex. I could start having a go at self-driving but that’s for another day. At the same time, as I’ve mentioned, I do agree with the use of AI in certain areas to improve and support our lives – Google, in fact, has been responsible for some of the positives in these areas. I do not believe, however, that this so-called ‘support’ should have more of a negative impact than a positive one.

Not having to turn off your own lights or grab the remote to change the channel is just about as far as the AI-driven laziness should go.