Since Google’s demo of an AI bot making a phone call a few weeks ago, the reaction I have read seems to be completely polarised. About half the reviewers are blown away, believing it to be unleashing AI wonders/horrors which are half a step away from SkyNet going live. The other half are nonplussed, seeing no potential value.
They are all wrong.
Let’s deal with the "this is the advent of true AI" bunch first. Google have demonstrated a realistic sounding voice which can currently deal with a few, very limited scenarios, and I suspect will rapidly fail if the other party goes significantly off track. Sure, it’s a step forward, but just a step. If you want to see a much more convincing demo, catch up with the program "How to Build a Human" from about 18 months ago, in which the makers of the Channel 4 Sci-Fi program "Humans" got a mix of British experts to build a robot Gemma Chan, who (which?) was then interviewed over Skype by a bunch of entertainment journalists. About half the reviewers didn’t realise they weren’t talking to the real Gemma. That’s much closer to a Turing test pass.
At the other end of the scale we’ve got those who don’t see any advance or value to a machine which can help make a phone call. To those, I have a simple question: "how did you get on, the last time you rang your bank / utility / travel company / <insert other large organisation here>?"
I completely agree that it’s a waste, and maybe a bit sinister, to task a robot with making a call to a local restaurant or hairdresser. But when was the last time you rang anything other than a small local business, and got straight through to talk to a human being? We all waste far too much of our time sitting on the phone, trying to navigate endless menus, trying to avoid the dead end where all you can do is hang up and try again, or listening to "Greensleeves" being played on a stylophone with a reminder every 20s that the recipient values your call. Yeah, right.
If I want to deal with a computer, I’ll go onto the website. I’m very happy doing that, and if I can do my business that way I will. The reason I have picked up the phone is one of the following:
- The website doesn’t support the transaction I want to execute, or the information I need. I need to speak to a human being.
- The website has a problem. I need to speak to a human being.
- The website has instructed me to phone and speak to a human being.
Spot the common thread?
So I have the ideal use case for Google’s new technology. It makes the phone call. It navigates the endless menus, referring to a machine learning database of how to get to a human being as quickly as possible, and how to avoid dead ends in that organisation’s phone system. It provides simple responses to authentication prompts if it can, or prompts me for just the required information. If the call drops or dead ends it starts again. And it listens to "Greensleeves" or equivalent, silently in the background, until it’s sure it’s speaking to a human being. At that point, it says, like a good secretary would, "please hold, I have Mr Andrew Johnston for you", gets my attention and I pick up the call.
In the meantime, I get on with my life.
In some ways, this is actually easier than what Google have already done, because most of the interaction is computer-to-computer, and actively doesn’t need a human-like voice or understanding. It’s certainly a better use of the technology than pestering the local hairdresser.
OK Google. Build this, please.