/ Technology

Has Google taken its virtual assistant a step too far?

Google Assistant

Showcased this week, the latest version of Google Assistant has distinctly human-like qualities. Are you comfortable with the advancing AI technology and would you be willing to share your data with it to make it even better?

When I watched this video from Google IO, its annual showcase for developers, I gasped and let out an expletive.

It shows Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, demonstrating the next leap forward for Google’s virtual assistant.

In an apparently real conversation between an unsuspecting woman in a hair salon and Google Assistant, the AI bot books a haircut for the device’s owner. What is really startling is how the Assistant adds ’umms‘ and ’mm-hmms‘ in the right place, leading to a rash of think-pieces wondering if this is the moment that a robot passes the Turing test.

If that’s not amazing enough, a subsequent demonstration, with the Assistant trying to book a table with someone whose speech isn’t always clear, is astonishing.

And what’s really exciting is that this technology is coming to a phone near you in the not-too-distant future.

Android P operating system

Google IO’s stated purpose is to show off to developers where the Android platform is going and give them tools to develop their applications to run on the new version of the platform.

It also gives developers and tech journalists like me the chance to get our hands on a beta version of the new Android P operating system.

There are lots of interesting things thrown up by this that are worth mentioning. First, if your phone qualifies for the beta of Android P will you be installing it?

Installing a beta is always a bit of a risk, especially on a device you rely on every day: Google has warned that ’system and app performance is known to be periodically slow and janky‘ on its Pixel phones, for example.

Second, would you be comfortable delegating tasks to a virtual assistant that involves it interacting on your behalf with a third party?

I use both the Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa a lot. On my phone, I quickly dig up information from the web and surface content on the device itself by summoning the assistant. At home, I use Alexa to control my lights.

Doing both of these felt downright unnatural at first, but it’s second nature now. So while the thought of getting a virtual assistant to make phone calls for me is now rather unsettling, I have no doubt I won’t bat an eyelid in a few years’ time.

Data sharing

The bigger question to consider, though, is data sharing. We tend to think of data as personal information about ourselves, the kind of information Facebook and Google hoover up, potentially at some cost to our privacy.

However, signing up to a software beta and consenting to our calls being used to train AI to build products is also sharing data – but in a good way. If you consent to this kind of data sharing, you are contributing to building something and, hopefully, to making it better.

When I install the beta of Android P on my phone later today, I’ll be agreeing to share details of how it works with Google. And by doing that, I’ll be helping Google build the services of tomorrow.

That seems like a fair exchange: I get the geeky fun and satisfaction of an early look at the next generation of something I’m interested in, and Google gets data to help make it good when it eventually gets rolled out to consumers.

How do you feel about the kind of services that Google – and others – are building? Will you be helping tech companies by sharing data with them?


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I guess most folk think that sharing some of their data, to help improve the service they get when go on-line, is a “fair exchange”. (Otherwise they’d all be posting with usernames like **** and not revealing key facts like clues to their location on Planet Earth.)

Anyone who knows my full name can easily find out my address and phone number from my Telephone Directory entry. I’m sure my details are held by many other organisations too, including both commercial and government.

That said, snooping on my on-line shopping habits will be hard, because I barely do any.

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Duncan, your first statement is not literally true all of the time.

It all depends on how one accesses Google maps and what for…

Google Maps thinks my location is about 1.5 hours drive away.

That’s like the story of the Texas cattle baron bragging to the English Lord. ‘I can drive all day and still be on my own land’ he said.

The Lord smiled and said ‘I used to have a car like that too’.

Worryingly, Google Maps knows which part of the house I’m in.

But is it your house? 🙂

It certainly is. I then asked Siri to find a map for my address and the job was done, adding the postal town and postcode.

When you are old and grey this might be very handy to know. 🙁

66 and it’s only grey at the sides. How about you?

I have hair on the top as well.

After questioning Siri that seems to be called a pompadour haircut, Malcolm. 🙂

It occurred to me to ask Siri “How old am I?”. I was relieved to receive the prompt response: “I don’t know your age.” I am relieved about that.

Maybe a diplomatic response. Doesn’t appear to read the Convo.

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That’s more helpful than my virtual assistant.

If I stop driving on the way home and have a look at the phone it sometimes gives me a message to say that I am so many minutes from home and the traffic is light. When I moved home in 2016 it worked out where my new home is. Big Google or big Apple is watching me, and probably sharing data.

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A small charity that I belong to will have to provide information about what data we hold on our members and what we do with it, under the forthcoming GDPR rules. Will I be able to request this from Google?

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Thanks Duncan. I’ve bookmarked this. I’m expecting Which? will give us advice about this soon. I thought we would have advice and discussion about GDPR before now.

Edit: I have just found this on the Which? website: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2018/04/seven-ways-gdpr-will-strengthen-your-data-protection-rights/

If you carry a smart phone that includes a satnav and are logged in to the net via that phone, then you are easily tracked by the likes of Google and others…

But, even if you don’t do that and even if you don’t use the internet, data about you can still end up on the net – if is uploaded by others.

Absolutely. Looking at maps and other apps show us exactly where we are, so I have little doubt that I can be tracked because I carry around a smart phone.

Given that the ‘ net is going to contain data about us anyway, my view is that we might as well use it and enjoy its benefits.

That’s my view too, Derek. It may change in the light of experience. One thing I’m quite sure about is that if I am sent advertising it will make me less less likely to use a company.

I enjoyed the Google video in Kate’s introduction and wonder how many attempts it took to get it right.

Just a simple request to Siri to ‘Look up Which? Conversation’ – a site I look at occasionally – produced: “Conversation is a form of interaction of communication between or among people”. A more polite request to ‘Look up Which? Conversation, please’ produced the expected result. This difference was consistent.

That’s the trouble with online videos – they can be edited as required.

Or you can keep trying until it works perfectly.

Every time some new development is featured on Which? Conversation there seems to be universal condemnation from most of those who post comments. In each case, as here, there are valid concerns about innovation, but perhaps a lot has to do with the fact that as we get older we are more resistant to change. It’s interesting to see how those who are most averse to technological developments find one or two that prove very useful to them.

I don’t tend to be an early adopter but I wish I had bought a sat nav sooner, since my personal ability at navigation sometimes results in me heading in the wrong direction on the right road. With hindsight I could have bought a smartphone a couple of years earlier but I usually had access to one when on holiday with friends.

It’s a good job that Which? Convo was not around when the wheel was invented. I expect the critics would be concerned that if wheels were used for transport, that could run away out of control. I’m not a devotee of science fiction but I’m well aware that many implausible ideas have become reality. As a point to ponder, none of us would be having this discussion without technological developments that were a bit questionable at one time. I suppose that’s a bit off-topic.

An enjoyable set of musings Wavechange, all of which resonate here.

“but perhaps a lot has to do with the fact that as we get older we are more resistant to change ” or possibly we get wiser to the fact of the many wondrous things announced none will include the real downsides.

Therefore we, with our advanced brains [as compared to those under 25], and experience, would naturally be the ones trying to discern the downsides. And then we communicate.

As a bit of a cynic, I look at new “innovations” and try to decide whether they are really just adult toys, designed to extract money from our pockets simply because they are novel, or whether the have real value.

Do I really want to switch lights on and off by talking to a bit of hardware? I don’t see it as essential. But I did buy a TomTom fairly early because it offered clear help. I resisted spending £00s on a smartphone because my £30 Nokia sent and received calls and messages quite adequately. I then inherited one. It is nice to access the internet while out and about, but has rarely been essential, and it is antisocial when I phub in company.

Thanks Vynor. An easy way of deciding whether new (to me) products might be useful is to find a friend or family member with the gadget, listen to their views and have a play with it. I guess that the late Stephen Hawking might have found Google’s virtual assistant helpful.

It’s probably worth being open minded rather than automatically condemning innovation.

I am always open-minded Wave : ).

Being new or different does not automatically make something better or worse. But as I posted previously people peddling products are prone to minimising downsides and over-claiming benefits.

Intelligent people will bear this in mind and make a more balanced case for those without the experience or time to do this for themselves. Perhaps they might band together to maximise coverage and reach. … : )

Money is a powerful incentive for people to lie and indulge in bad behaviours. It is interesting to think that when people are shielded by the anonymity of being an employee there seems to be no need for ethics. Particularly as in most jurisdictions personal penalties do not exist or are incredibly rarely enforced.

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As I am myself, Patrick. 🙂

Perhaps we could work together on producing some honest marketing information.

From Wikipedia: “Consumerism is a social and economic order and ideology that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts” for all sorts of reasons including:

1. Planned obsolescence
2. Marketing and peer pressure to replace working goods with new ones or more expensive products
3. The desire, conscious or otherwise, to impress others

Perhaps, if we wish to tackle misleading marketing, we could start with politicians?

“Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008” deals with things such as misleading marketing. Maybe we (“consumers”) should compare what we regard as misleading against the requirements of this act and then ask our consumers’association to …..act. If we want to produce results we need to do more than just chat.

We are off topic here, I feel, when “Perhaps we could work together on producing some honest marketing information.” so I’ve put a comment in “The Lobby”.

Can’t quite remember how it worked now, but on one of my earlier mobile phones, you spoke the name of someone in your phone book rather than look it up. It never got the right person and it was quicker to find the person yourself rather than keep repeating the name. It would probably work much better on my current Samsung but I haven’t actually tried it.

I’m sure most of us have phoned a company only for a computer voice to answer and ask you questions. Name and account number are never a problem, but it gets rather frustrating when asked for the nature of the call especially when your query doesn’t fit into their vocabulary. Sky are fun…..

Voice: Please tell me why you are calling today.
Me: Intermittent broadband.
Voice: You want to set up broadband, is that right?
Me: No.
Voice: Please tell me again why you are calling today.
Me. Broadband keeps dropping out.
Voice: You dropped your broadband box, is that right?
Me: No.
Voice: Please tell me again why you are calling today.
Me: I want to speak to an operator.
Voice: Sorry, I haven’t been able to understand your question, please wait while I connect you to an operator. 😫

Okay, some of that was made up (but not by much), but you get the gist.

There’s a TV ad where someone runs out of cereal and asks their virtual assistant (Cortana?/Alexi?/something else?) to order more cereal. Is it really that simple? How does it know which cereal to order?

One thing I hate about restaurant seating is sitting on a table for 2 just inches away from strangers on the next table when you have no choice but to hear all their conversations and they can hear every word you say also. There are some restaurants that only have a few tables I don’t mind sitting at so I will try to book specific tables and if they don’t have them don’t go. A computer would have a problem understanding that scenario.

There is no doubt computer interaction is improving all the time, but I think I will let others be the guinea-pigs for now.

Don’t computers use something called ‘lookup tables”. Maybe they could help with restaurant seating.

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I know, Duncan, but it was intended as a joke – prompted by Alfa’s anecdote.

For fans of Google Assistant: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XdZXpFBvTP8