A brief thought on Google Duplex

Last week was Google I/O, and there was a lot of discussion around one of their keynote demos: Google Duplex. This is a service that acts like a human, and makes phone calls on your behalf. You can watch the demos on YouTube – one has Duplex booking a haircut, another trying to book a table at a restaurant.

From a technical perspective, I think it’s very impressive. I still have memories of primitive speech-to-text voices, so the vocal quality of that demo and the understanding of the other person and the near-instant responses feels very futuristic.

But I’ve heard people dismissing it as a toy for rich lazy people, and that feels a bit ableist to me.

Lots of people have trouble with phone calls, for a variety of reasons. Maybe hearing is difficult. Perhaps they can’t speak, or they have speech difficulties or an accent that make it hard to be understood. Or they have anxiety talking to strangers on the phone, or waiting on hold uses energy they don’t have.

Giving those people a way to use phone trees/voice-only interfaces? That could be a great step forward for accessibility.

Calling it “lazy” is like shaming somebody for not using the stairs, or for buying pre-cut fruit and veg. You might not need it, but maybe they do.

I’m not somebody who needs this, but I feel icky seeing people so quick to pass judgement.