Yesterday, at I/O 2018, Google showed off a new digital assistant capability that’s meant to improve your life by making simple boring phone calls on your behalf. The new Google Duplex feature is designed to pretend to be human, with enough human-like functionality to schedule appointments or make similarly inane phone calls. According to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, the phone calls the company played were entirely real. You can make an argument, based on these audio clips, that Google actually passed the Turing Test.
If you haven’t heard the audio of the two calls, you should give the clip a listen. We’ve embedded the relevant part of Pichai’s presentation below.
I suspect the calls were edited to remove the place of business, but apart from that, they sound like real phone calls. If you listen to both segments, the male voice booking the restaurant sounds a bit more like a person than the female does, but the gap isn’t large and the female voice is still noticeably better than a typical AI. The female speaker has a rather robotic “At 12PM” at one point that pulls the overall presentation down, but past that, Google has vastly improved AI speech. I suspect the same technologies at work in Google Duplex are the ones we covered about six weeks ago.
So what’s the Turing Test and why is passing it a milestone? The British computer scientist, mathematician, and philosopher Alan Turing devised the Turing test as a means of measuring whether a computer was capable of demonstrating intelligent behavior equivalent to or indistinguishable from that of a human. This broad formulation allows for the contemplation of many such tests, though the general test case presented in discussion is a conversation between a researcher and a computer in which the computer responds to questions. A third person, the evaluator, is tasked with determining which individual in the conversation is human and which is a machine. If the evaluator cannot tell, the machine has passed the Turing test.
The Turing test is not intended to be the final word on whether an AI is intelligent and, given that Turing conceived it in 1950, obviously doesn’t take into consideration later advances or breakthroughs in the field. There have been robust debates for decades over whether passing the Turing test would represent a meaningful breakthrough. But what sets Google Duplex apart is its excellent mimicry of human speech. The original Turing test supposed that any discussion between computer and researcher would take place in text. Managing to create a voice facsimile close enough to standard human to avoid suspicion and rejection from the company in question is a significant feat.
As of right now, Duplex is intended to handle rote responses, like asking to speak to a representative, or simple, formulaic social interactions. Even so, the program’s demonstrated capability to deal with confusion (as on the second call), is still a significant step forward for these kinds of voice interactions. As artificial intelligence continues to improve, voice quality will improve and the AI will become better at answering more and more types of questions. We’re obviously still a long way from creating a conscious AI, but we’re getting better at the tasks our systems can handle — and faster than many would’ve thought possible.