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What does Google's new virtual assistant mean for humanity?

Google's Assistant Duplex is Changing Humanity's Identity, Ethics, and Laws

By Emily Mistishen on Aug 20, 2018
From the age of Star Wars to Siri, robots and artificial intelligence (AI) were concepts that were predominantly thought of as science fiction. While computers were an accessible technology that was used by society, the idea of walking and talking robots being pervasive in today’s world remained, for the most part, firmly rooted in TV shows, movies, and books. However, the technology has grown so significantly that science fiction is now much closer to being reality. A new age of robotics and AI that can think and behave like humans is transforming previous ideas of humanity, identity, and ethics; calling for a need to reevaluate how our laws, and our society, approach this growing field. IGI Global publications, including The Changing Scope of Technoethics in Contemporary Society by Dr. Rocci Luppicini from University of Ottawa, explore the transforming roles of robots in today’s society, as well as the effect they have on the population’s laws and behaviors.

Prof. Octavian M. Machidon from Transilvania University of Brasov explains in his chapter, “Socio-Ethical Impact of the Emerging Smart Technologies,” from the publication, The Changing Scope of Technoethics in Contemporary Society, “Today, technology is being integrated in all social environments, at home, school, or work, shaping a new world in which there is a closer interaction between human and machine than ever before.” Artificial life is now a growing field used commonly in many industries, organizations, and businesses. Robots that can walk around and interact with humans is now a feasible concept, with companies such as Boston Dynamics taking social media by storm with videos of their robots running, jumping, and opening doors. However, physical and humanoid robots are still a work in progress, and phone bots represent the more advanced and ingrained form of robotic technology that are calling today’s ethics into question.

Virtual assistants are already well-integrated into everyday life, particularly in cellphones. Assistants such as Siri and Alexa are a commonplace robotic technology that is used consistently and is trusted by society. However, Google recently startled viewers at a demo where they displayed their new bot assistant named Duplex. The bot assistant called and made reservations at a hair salon and a restaurant, switching between a male voice and a female voice for each call. But both voices had one thing in common: they were eerily human, and neither of them clarified that they were a robot. The voice sprinkled in “ums” and “likes,” typical human speech ticks that made it sound very un-robotic. The community raised concerns on social media about the lack of a disclaimer from the robot, with many claiming it as a moral wrong. As robot integration into society is becoming more and more prevalent, it is important for new laws to be established that address issues society has not faced before. Duplex is just one example of the issues society is beginning to face in the age of artificial intelligence and robots.

Whether or not robots and artificial intelligence should identify themselves as non-human is only one facet of a complicated issue. According to Prof. Erica Orange from Weiner, Edrich, Brown, Inc. in the chapter, “Understanding the Human-Machine Interface in a Time of Change,” from the publication, Robotics: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications, “Traits typically assigned to human intelligence, such as abstract thought, self-awareness, reasoning, learning, having emotional knowledge, communication, and problem solving will increasingly come under question as artificial intelligences become more advanced.” Today’s robots are clearly not human and do not process information the same way as humans. However, as machine learning and intelligence continues to improve, a majority of tech companies are striving to make robots more human-like, “personable,” and realistic, as shown by Google’s Duplex. Presumably, humanizing robots is a way to make them more acceptable to society. As Prof. Roger Andre Søraa from NTNU Norwegian University of Science and Technology explains in the chapter, “Mecha-Media: How Are Androids, Cyborgs, and Robots Presented and Received Through the Media?” from the publication, Androids, Cyborgs, and Robots in Contemporary Culture and Society, “The way humans describe robots in media coverage impacts the way humans adapt to them, and how robots affect humans in return.” Prof. Søraa continues by adding that for Western society, “the notion of the Terminators sticks very deeply”. Making robots more like humans might be companies’ way of combating negative perceptions of robots, but instead it is making the human population more uneasy when the ability to identify between robot and human becomes a much more difficult task.

Despite humans’ reluctant acceptance of robots, artificial intelligence technology continues to become more and more integrated into everyday life, and the blurred lines between robotic consciousness and human consciousness is transforming the way society lives. Prof. Orange explains, “This shifting relationship represents a period of profound transformation; one which will unquestionably redefine our ways of living, our societal norms, our social groups, and numerous other facets of society including the way in which humans construct their notion of self.” She adds that humans will become more and more dependent on technology, transforming society’s concept of trust and reliability as values. Prof. Orange, along with a growing number of researchers in the field, argues that society’s policies in regard to technology must adapt, and research in the field must address the implications of robotics technology on society.
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of IGI Global.
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