Google appears to have learned a lesson at this year’s I/O conference regarding artificial intelligence and how not to be too cavalier when introducing the technology to the public.
The Google Cloud Next 18 conference got underway on Tuesday and Dr. Fei Fei Li, Google’s chief AI scientist demonstrated a new AI system called Google Contact Center AI. This is designed to be the next generation of automated customer-service voices.
Li took the audience through a demonstration, showing off a system that deftly understood natural language and quickly responded to questions with pertinent answers. The software and human on the phone had what sounded like a normal conversation between a customer and a customer-service rep. It appears the days of keying into our handsets 1 for yes, and 2 for no may soon be a thing of the past.
The presentation echoed a similar demo at I/O this year. That’s when Google CEO Sundar Pichai showed off Duplex, the restaurant-booking digital assistant that sounded so human that people speaking to it on the phone were unaware they were talking to an automated system.
That freaked out some journalists and technology ethicists. The company was criticized for using a technology that could fool humans or snatch away jobs. This time, Li seemed intent on making sure that everyone understood that Google’s AI is not intended to put humans out of work.
“Contact Center AI is an example for our passion for bringing AI to every industry all the while elevating the role of human talent,” Li told the audience. “We’re creating technology that’s not just powerful but that’s also trustworthy.”
Google’s management has said that AI is core to the company’s future and mission and leaders are trying to exploit it in retail, autonomous cars, search and advertising. Wall Street analysts have begun to predict big future earnings as a result of AI.
AI fears and Google’s ethics
But AI is also dragging behind it some public-relations baggage. Nobody knows better than Li that AI is a sensitive subject. Li is a well-known AI expert and ethicist who took a sabbatical to join Google 18 months ago. In April, she found herself embroiled in a controversy inside Google over the company’s work with the military.
Google agreed to contribute AI tools to help analyze drone video footage and thousands of employees signed a petition demanding that Google halt the work and pledge not to ever build AI for weapons. Google agreed but an email exchange between Li and other managers indicated that Li worked hard to cultivate and sought to protect her reputation as an AI do-gooder.
That the emails appeared to suggest that Li was ok with Google contributing to a Pentagon program drew criticism within the company as some thought her position wasn’t consistent with her past comments about ethical AI, sources told Business Insider. Obviously Google’s management doesn’t appear to believe that Li has lost any credibility.
As for Contact Center AI, one question left unanswered is what happens when the technology evolves and perhaps becomes as good at customer service as humans? What happens to workers then?