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The problem isn't Duplex or AI. It's Google.

Google had a tremendous keynote at its annual IO conference. What the company is doing with augmented reality in Maps and continued conversation, multiple actions, and WaveNet for Google Assistant is totally next-generation stuff. It's the kind of stuff that should keep Apple executives up at night figuring out what they need to change about their priorities and people in order to not only catch up, but not be left behind when this becomes the most important platform in history.

We need them to. You and I need them to. And if you want to know why — just look at Duplex.

Deconstructing Duplex

It was the main event. The show stopper. No doubt about it. A neural-network assistant able to interact with — and pass for — human.

It was, from a purely technological point of view, amazing. Amazing. But it was also profoundly concerning.

Google mentioned the term AI over and over again. Not since Web 2.0 and To The Cloud have buzzwords been so buzzed. They mentioned AI so often it's almost like they were afraid we'd forget they were using it. What they didn't mention, though, was Google's responsibility in the face of all this AI. And what they absolutely didn't mention was privacy.

Not addressing corporate responsibility and privacy in today's climate isn't just absurd, it's borderline negligent.

In a time when Facebook is being hauled in front of Congress and users of online services everywhere are finally waking up and wondering just how their data is being used and potentially abused, not addressing corporate responsibility and privacy isn't just borderline negligent, it's absurd.

If Google is going to show off such deep knowledge of us and our contexts that it can draft emails for us and make phone calls for us — in other words, act as us — it has to actively, emphatically, repeatedly tell us how it's respecting our privacy while its doing it.

Privacy and responsibility should be repeated in each and every segment as much as AI. More. Not just for our benefit but for Google's benefit. Not just to assuage us, but to remind itself.

Because, right now, the way Google is terrifying.

Just take a look at the Google AI blog:

The Google Duplex technology is built to sound natural, to make the conversation experience comfortable. It's important to us that users and businesses have a good experience with this service, and transparency is a key part of that. We want to be clear about the intent of the call so businesses understand the context. We'll be experimenting with the right approach over the coming months.

Experimenting with the right approach over the coming months? No. Sorry. You have to nail down the privacy first. You have to come to terms with the ethics first. Then you have to build in a way that respects the privacy and holds to the ethics. There's no way to retrofit it later.

Can do vs. should do

Contrast this with how Apple developed the AI-powered Face ID feature: Apple has a privacy team. That team was involved from the very begging of the process, identifying every potential issue with regards to privacy, and making sure its addressed as part of the product development. And if Apple couldn't ensure the privacy, the product wouldn't ship until they could. That's how you take responsibility for your company and show respect to your users.

Rewatch the Google Duplex demo as well. Google Assistant never identifies itself as Google Assistant. Just the opposite, it does everything it can, including hemming and hawing as part of the conversation, in order to pass for human. That's a huge ethical problem and one Google doesn't even bother to acknowledge, much less attempt to address.

I mean, what better time to start the biggest conversation in the history of technology than during the biggest demo of the show? When better to stop being cocky about how often you can drop the term AI and what you're building and start showing some self-awareness and humility over its potential repercussions for all of us.

Now, I get that passing as human is better UX. It avoids all sorts of potential issues on the other end of the line, including having to explain what Google Assistant is and risking the human simply hanging up.

But those are reasons, not excuses.

There's a real person on the other end of the line, not just another API endpoint.

So. Much. Gray.

There are major benefits to this technology, absolutely. For people with voice accessibility needs it will be transformative. But there are negatives as well. For people with social anxiety or feel isolated, it will enable new levels of avoidance and regression.

Worse, we've already seen what Twitter and Facebook bots can do in terms of fermenting extremism, misinformation, and abuse. Technology like this is the gateway to those bots having a voice.

Sure, Duplex is tightly constrained to very narrow domains right now, but that's a processing limit that won't last. Despite what Google said, it isn't really working on this technology just to bridge the digital divide to businesses that haven't yet rolled out an online reservation system. That's a transitional situation that won't last out the generation.

This is going to be everything going forward. Google knows that. And Google needs to stop acting like it thinks we're too stupid to know that.

Google needs to address responsibility and privacy again and again, untiil we're tired of hearing about it. And then it needs to do it again.

Google needs to start the conversation. Google needs to talk about its responsibility in all this, it needs to address privacy and ethics all the time, every time. It needs to address it again and again until Google's culture is steeped in it and we're all tired of hearing about it. And then it needs to do it again.

Because right now, the problem isn't the artificial intelligence, the problem is Google.

And Apple.

Absent Google giving any indication it cares about any of this, Apple needs to get its assistant shit together and fast. This really is the future. Like I talked about in a previously, SiriOS will be the future. And if Apple doesn't take it seriously, doesn't make it a priority, and doesn't just catch up but start leading — ethically, morally, if not initially technologically — we'll have no privacy and user-centric options.

And that's bad for everyone.

Start the discussion

There is the spin on an old joke: when the last human is killed by the machines and goes to heaven, God meter at the pearly gates. And she says, how could you let this happen? And God says, I sent you the terminator, I sent you the matrix, those were warnings, what the hell are you doing here?

Now, I don't think this is Rise of the Machines. I don't think this is Judgment Day. But I do think it's important that we talk about these issues in this technology now. So, I'd love to hear what you think. Is duplex amazing? Is it terrifying? Is it a little bit of both? Where do you see this all going, and how do you see us getting there?

Rene Ritchie
Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

68 Comments
  • FUD article to detract from how amazing this pre-release project is. I am sure like their other stuff when the time is ready to roll this out, there will be plenty of transparency about your data being used like all of their other services, but you seem to ignore that fact. I didn't expect anything less from you, Rene.
  • Completely, agree! This simply has to be the GREATEST piece of FUD Rene has ever penned. Exceeded my every expectation.
  • A lot of comments on this article seem to disagree
  • I have no issues with opposing opinions. Some people believe anything that Rene writes without checking things out for themselves. That's on them.
  • Not everything Rene writes is correct, as with any article written by anybody, but more often than not there is some level of truth in the article. I think Rene is wrong about it having to identify itself as Google Assistant, but I also think that he is right in that Google should've mentioned more about the privacy side, especially with GDPR looming
  • I think this is great technology, and above all it most certainly and definitely shouldn't identify itself as Google Assistant on the phone call, that defeats the whole purpose, not to mention the people who would hang up. You don't have to identify yourself on a phone call, if you're booking something you're giving the name of the person you're booking for, not the caller's name. The main important thing (especially with GDPR looming) is that Google is transparent with their privacy. I believe they should've mentioned about the privacy side of things in the keynote, but hopefully it will all get addressed sooner or later
  • I agree with you here entirely. It would be strange for the Assistant to identify itself. Seems like the writer just wants to find faults to argue.
  • @ Rene, Couldn't agree with you more!!!! Google is not on our side here and for some reason the public at large grants them passes they never would for Microsoft or Apple. This stuff is frightening and is yet another reason i'm glad to have moved to iOS after MS abandoned me to Android.
  • Please tell the class how specifically Google is "not on our side"? And please don't bring up the tired meme of "They sell your personal data" to make your point. They don't sell your personal data any more than Apple or Microsoft does which is to say not at all.
  • Admittedly Google have a lot more data than Apple, so technically they probably do sell more, but only because they have more.
  • They don't technically sell it, though. If they did, ironically, their business model wouldn't work.
  • They sell it to advertisers all the time. And their ad business wouldn't work without cross-site scripting, and slowing down the websites at least 50%.
  • They don't sell it to advertisers. What they do is match up the data they have on you with the type of person an advertiser wants to promote to. All of this is done by Google and nothing is passed onto the advertiser. Do some fact checking before being a FUD-monger.
  • and seriously.. Get a proofreader already! "Like I talked about in a previously, SiriOS will be the future. " "God meter at the pearly gates." Trying to get this FUD out so fast, you don't even proofread your own work.
  • It’s hilarious how much Rene talks about the integrity of other journalists...yet every time Google announces something he’s the first with FUD regarding it...
  • I have never once see him say anything remotely disparaging about Apple or any product they have released.
  • Any integrity and reputation Rene had as a credible journalist was lost years ago with his asinine piece on how the holes & stickers on the Samsung Galaxy didn't line up properly and thus concluded that Samsung was not to be trusted.
  • I don't think it concluded that Samsung wasn't to be trusted, just that they should pay more attention to design. The holes on the Samsung Galaxy actually didn't line up, which is valid criticism.
  • The holes in the Apple watch don't line up properly, is that a valid criticism? Apple should of payed more attention to design.
  • Which holes are you referring to?
  • Bob_Smith is a big fan of whataboutism without evidence.
  • I admire your skills! From my simple statement you come to that conclusion ! You know nothing about me at all but you conclued i have whataboutism. You have skills, please teach me please.
  • People judge you by your style of argument. I vaguely remember when Rene pointed out the uneven placement of the screws. I don't think he was saying "Don't buy it," or "They're a worthless company," just pointing out a design flaw they missed. You replied to an argument about the content of Rene's article by accusing apple of "the same thing." With no evidence. Might Apple have done the same thing? Maybe. Give us evidence. That is a classic instance of "whataboutism." Which by the way, your answered with sarcasm. Where IS that misplaced screw in Apple's designs?
  • But I said nothing about screws in the Apple watch...
  • Screws, holes, whichever way you put it, you still never answered the question.
  • there is no more privacy. i want great service like when i have an appointment downtown i wanna know when to leave. are there any traffic or even parking. i also wanna see where my package is and not check inside apps.
    i like if the assistance answers my phone if i am busy. siri is just not good. apple has so much money to fix some issues. at one point apple has to make an decision which way to go. google is already so far away and apple did not do anything to see that.
  • There are some of us who value what little privacy that we have left. Heck, there's a joke in the intelligence community that the government wishes that they had the data collection capabilities of both Google and Facebook; that should tell you something. And then you have Amazon Alexa that listens to every thing that's said around it. There's a reason why I won't let that thing into my house!
  • All devices with microphones can potentially be listening to everything around them. It depends how paranoid you are, but really if you don't want an Amazon Echo for that reason, then you probably want to disable the microphone on your phone, tablet, smart tv and laptop as well.
  • Apple has decided which way they want to go. Long and loudly.
  • It's always the one yelling, "FUD!!!" the loudest that gives us the most FUD. My God Chicken Little. Go hide in a room or something.
  • The truth about Google is that the science is brilliant and completely destructive. You don't have to go further than to examine their "ads". They are not advertising. They are doing their best to individually brainwash. Surreptitiously gather all the information possible about you without asking and without informing you of exactly what they are doing. Advertisement always worked with nothing else butc census data and ratings companies like Nielsen. I don't want my news coming from algorithms based on what I "like." That's the way to construct a stupid tribalist.
  • You opt in if you wish and you have full access to what data they have on you and can delete it if you want. Been that way for years (long before Apple let you see what data it has on you). Keep drinking Rene's Kool-Aid, iBoy.
  • Don't be a ******, VAVA. There are serious concerns over Duplex. The fact the person Duplex is calling doesn't know it's a robot is ethically messed up, as pointed out by CNET and many others. The fact this could get into the wrong hands and we start getting fooled by robots in scams or in cases of identity theft issues. I'll take Apple's Siri over Google Assistant, Alexa, Bixby, and Cortana combined. It's just more private and it does everything I need it to do. I'm all in with Apple and couldn't be happier. If you don't like/love Apple you need to move your happy *** back over to Lagdroid Central...;) I'm sure you'll be much happier there. I say go Rene!!
  • Google already said that when this rolls out it will preface that it is a call from Google Assistant when someone picks up the call. Go sip some more FUD Kool Aid from Rene, sheep.
  • I'm no sheep/fanboy VAVA. I just know a great tech company when I see one. If you hate Apple and Rene so much, you do not deserve to be here and you can go enjoy your trash Galaxys and Pixels like the true fandroid you are. Apple is the best company in tech. Period. And not creeps like Google and Microsoft. #teamappleforever
  • Google obviously gives these Gollum fans who talk about FUD what they need. Why do you need your dose of AI, folks? Your own intelligence not good enough?
  • Duplex is so awesome, if it comes true, I want it to replace all our banks answering machine. Just make it sound like an answering machine with the technical know hows to service us is fine, and if it can't help you, then there's always the real person who can help you. It's like call screening for the banks. To highlight making appointments in the demo is kind of a show on poor appointment making in apps, you mean talking to a person is still faster than making an appointment in apps? That is bad, app makers you have to be better.
  • In apps that support Siri or Google Assistant, you could potentially just say "book this appointment for 10" and it would book it straight through the app, but if the app does not have that capability, then yes the app makers need to add this.
  • The problem isn't Duplex or AI. It's René. Actually gonna kinda of agree with René well just a bit. We should be aware of what Google is doing and keep pressing them about privacy.
    We should keep an eye on all tech companies and hold their feet to the fire.
  • That's all I think that Rene was saying.
  • And to that end, Google has a track record of being far more transparent about what data it has on you and how it is used than either Apple or Microsoft.
  • Morg052 made a very good point below: "Apple’s ‘transparency’ also got me thinking: ‘we do not collect your data’, ‘all requests are processed on device’, and ‘we don’t want to know’ all seem to indicate that Apple doesn’t have anything it needs to be transparent about re data collection."
  • Are you serious with this post? ABSOLUTELY they should be transparent with their users and their data. NO company is above being transparent with what their doing. Danny, you may be a biggest Apple fan ever, but you're definitely above this kind of thinking.
  • I guess what was more meant by this was that Apple probably feel they don't need to be transparent. All companies should definitely be transparent, and Apple is no exception. I'm curious as to the data transparency report though, I imagine it's still far less than companies like Google and Microsoft.
  • Wow! What A conversation! My ears are ringing from all the shouting. Rene, I agree with you and I have the same concerns. I am grateful that you are keeping privacy in the forefront of your coverage.
  • The Google Duplex demo made me weep for Apple. I imagine none of the Apple executives have slept well since. I'm not surprised that this article belittles Google's historical achievement. Did Google Assistant just pass the Turing test? I mean, if I was Apple, and I just realized my most feared competitor just demoed technology easily 5 generations or more ahead of anything I have, I too would resort to fear mongering, deception, and misdirection. The irony is also not lost on me that of all the major tech companies, Google is the only one that has consistently been completely transparent about how it uses data and for what purposes. It's also the only major tech company that has allowed it's users to dictate and control exactly how they want their data to be used. https://privacy.google.com/index.html In contrast, to this day, Apple still hasn't provided me with a privacy and security dashboard that shows me how they use my data and allows me to control that usage. What's Apple's equivalent of Google Takeout? Yet, every time Google demonstrates a breakthrough in AI, Apple misdirects to "privacy". This lack of transparency is why in recent polls people trust Google more than Apple.
  • Indeed. Couldn't agree more.
  • Apple may not be completely transparent with privacy, however they have a much more refined system for protecting your privacy. It was much later than iOS that Android gained the ability when opening apps it would prompt you asking you where you want to allow "contact access" etc, so you could restrict certain things but not others, whilst also making it clearer what the app has access to. Apple does the majority of its processing on the device, which means that none of that data is sent off to Apple. There are a plethora of systems in iOS that help protect your privacy, and not all of these exist in Android. On the point of AI, yes Google are ahead of Apple, as well as other companies, because this is something Google specialises in. Apple specialise in other areas which Google aren't as good in. I'm sure this demo has hurt Apple somewhat, but Apple are ahead of Google in other areas too, arguably including protecting your privacy, even if they aren't transparent enough with what they collect.
  • Apple isn’t transparent, and that seems to me to be an advantage when it comes to the systems it uses to maintain privacy and security. The only evidence for proving iOS vs Android in this context are the types and numbers of viruses and exploits discovered in the wild. Apple’s stance on privacy seems to also be proven by their less evolved and less functional AI. At this point, I’d say that worse AI/ML is a selling point ;)
  • The selling point here is that many apps on Apple's App Store are simply integrated with Siri, so a phone call does not have to be made, and instead you can just ask Siri to book the appointment through the app.
  • GA does the same. Duplex is pushing that limitation.
  • GA can do the same, but I doubt there are as many apps integrated like this as there are on the Apple App Store, hence why Duplex now exists. Is Duplex not Google doing the work because they can't get developers to integrate with GA?
  • Google informed all users, with publicity, they were re-opening all gmail accounts to internal seraches and AI analysis? Must’ve missed that. Also, Android isn’t necessarily a static object: not only do hardware makers alter security, malware does, too. It seemed to me that RR was trying to draw attention to this aspect, as well as Google’s complete silence on what happens to our information.
  • This is inaccurate throughout.
  • The issues raised by the article are legitimate. People crying FUD are blinded by technological novelty and tunnel vision and should sit down and think about the broader societal consequences of the tech they're so excited about. At the very least, they should listen to what other people are saying rather than stick their thumbs in their ears and shout "FUD! FUD! FUD!" to drown out the (for them) party-pooper talk.
  • I think people are all about an intelligent discussion, which this piece is not even close to being. It's riddled with hyperbole and conjecture throughout. As one example, Rene states that "But there are negatives as well. For people with social anxiety or feel isolated, it will enable new levels of avoidance and regression." He cites no source and has no professional qualifications on any level as a psychologist himself, so if not conjecture and FUD then why even speculate about something like that?
  • Does common sense need to be cited? If I tell you that punching someone will make them angry, is that just speculation?
  • Common sense?!?! How is that level of conjecture common sense? Your example of punching someone is unrelated.
  • It's not unrelated at all. "For people with social anxiety or feel isolated, it will enable new levels of avoidance and regression." This is the most likely outcome, (just like punching someone will make them angry). To further the point, I doubt Rene would've written it if he didn't know anyone like this either
  • Like I stated ... Rene should stop with the FUD and conjecture. ...and you as well, with the "common sense" and "most likely outcome" rhetoric. https://thenextweb.com/artificial-intelligence/2018/05/24/googles-duplex...
  • The way tech is evolving, pretty soon you cannot trust any electronically recorded/transmitted voices or images. Only direct live communication (i.e. talking with someone right in front of you) will be fully trustworthy. Until they perfect androids.
  • It’s also Microsoft and the media and the blasé attitudes these three entities have created. I’m stunned by some of the people simply denying any possible chance of future problems out of hand. The business model of various companies and organisations definitely requires public scrutiny, rather than this fake tribalism which seems to substitute for an informed opinion. TUSA seems to have generated a meme that govt regulation = terrorism, yet there’s scant awareness of what regulations were initially created for. For profit organisations don’t have an ROI for quality of living - has anyone else noticed? I’d like to know what motivates so many people to deny Google duty of care in developing AI based on invasion of privacy.
  • After reading some more comments, it struck me that Google isn’t transparent with its business model: does G sell data, or analysed data? How does G ensure privacy from malware or hardware makers’ business models? How can we access any and all personal data G has collected? Apple’s ‘transparency’ also got me thinking: ‘we do not collect your data’, ‘all requests are processed on device’, and ‘we don’t want to know’ all seem to indicate that Apple doesn’t have anything it needs to be transparent about re data collection. Microsoft? Hahahaa!
  • That's a very good point. Apple doesn't really have much need for transparency because they let you know that the processing is done on the device itself, plus you have things such as permission prompts and "Allow Full Access" on custom keyboards, all designed to protect your privacy
  • You should actually request your data transparency report from Apple if you believe it's unnecessary. It took my request 17 days to be fulfilled and they have more on you than you might think. From my first log in 2005, before I owned ANY Apple device and only an iTunes account, my IP Address, the device I logged in from, etc. All of which Apple has stored in their data coffers to keep forever. No way for me to download and delete it.
  • Could you post a link to the webpage you requested your data report from?
  • I contacted through the privacy questions portal and requested a data transparency report for my account and all know devices. https://www.imore.com/e?link=https2F2Fc2F4...
  • I encourage you to investigate things for yourself. Blog comment section posts are just opinions and very few are rooted in facts. Most use hearsay and rumor as their point of reference.