In Crisis of Control, I opined that AI would be used to make telemarketing calls indistinguishable from humans, and said,

I’d like to hope […] that Siri might answer your phone and engage a robocalling bot in a time-wasting diversion, but economics suggests that advanced development purely for protecting the consumer rarely receives funding equal to that available for persecuting the consumer.

I’m delighted to be proven wrong. At least at the moment, the lead in this arms race for your attention has been taken by Google’s Pixel 3 smartphone. When Google announced their Duplex service, we saw that an AI  had for the first time entered level 3 of autonomous assistant conversational ability. It can converse with humans in some contexts (like making appointments) to a degree that the distinction between Duplex and a human is neither important nor apparent.

When I saw the Duplex demo, I thought the days of call center humans were numbered.  I still do.  But Google to its vast credit has now deployed Duplex for Pixel 3 users as a gatekeeper.  When a call arrives, if you’re suspicious of the intentions, you can hand it off to Duplex, who will ask the caller why they’re calling.  You watch the conversation transcription and decide the ultimate fate of the caller, such as having Duplex tell them to take a hike.

It’s not quite what I was describing above – you have to monitor the conversation to make a disposition – but that we’re at this point less than two years after publication suggests we’ll get there before long.  Of course, how long it is before the telemarketing calls are made by something as smart as Duplex is another question.

A natural and likely next step will be for Duplex to answer certain calls automatically. If, for instance, it recently made an appointment with your dentist and it sees the dentist’s office in the caller ID, it would be logical to take the call and see whether they want to reschedule. If it sees a call from your bae, it knows your calendar and can respond with “Hey, Justin’s in the pool at the Y right now, he should be out in 15 and I can pass on a message.” The hardest part won’t be so much the technology to react to the call but the user interface taxonomy to express the choices you have for which calls you want it to handle.

But I have an iPhone.  Apple, get Siri to do this.

Posted by Peter Scott

Peter Scott’s résumé reads like a Monty Python punchline: half business coach, half information technology specialist, half teacher, three-quarters daddy. After receiving a master’s degree in Computer Science from Cambridge University, he has worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as an employee and contractor for over thirty years, helping advance our exploration of the Solar System. Over the years, he branched out into writing technical books and training. Yet at the same time, he developed a parallel career in “soft” fields of human development, getting certifications in NeuroLinguistic Programming from founder John Grinder and in coaching from the International Coaching Federation. In 2007 he co-created a convention honoring the centennial of the birth of author Robert Heinlein, attended by over 700 science fiction fans and aerospace experts, a unique fusion of the visionary with the concrete. Bridging these disparate worlds positions him to envisage a delicate solution to the existential crises facing humanity. He lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and two daughters, writing the Human Cusp blog on dealing with exponential change.

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