Google Archive

Talking to Duplex: Google’s phone AI feels revolutionary

At Google I/O, Google demonstrated Google Duplex, an AI-generated voice assistent that can make phone calls for you to perform tasks like making a restaurant reservation or booking a hair salon appointment. After the event, a whole Google Duplex truther movement sprung up, who simply couldn't believe technology could do anything even remotely like this, and who accused Google and its CEO Sundar Pachai of lying on stage.

Today, a whole slew of media outlets have published articles about how they were invited to an event at a real restaurant, where the journalists themselves got to talk to Google Duplex. The journalists took on the role of restaurant workers taking reservations requested by Google Duplex. The results? It works exactly as advertised - better, even. Here's Ars Technica's Ron Amadeo:

Duplex patiently waited for me to awkwardly stumble through my first ever table reservation while I sloppily wrote down the time and fumbled through a basic back and forth about Google's reservation for four people at 7pm on Thursday. Today's Google Assistant requires authoritative, direct, perfect speech in order to process a command. But Duplex handled my clumsy, distracted communication with the casual disinterest of a real person. It waited for me to write down its reservation requirements, and when I asked Duplex to repeat things I didn't catch the first time ("A reservation at what time?"), it did so without incident. When I told this robocaller the initial time it wanted wasn't available, it started negotiating times; it offered an acceptable time range and asked for a reservation somewhere in that time slot. I offered seven o'clock and Google accepted.

From the human end, Duplex's voice is absolutely stunning over the phone. It sounds real most of the time, nailing most of the prosodic features of human speech during normal talking. The bot "ums" and "uhs" when it has to recall something a human might have to think about for a minute. It gives affirmative "mmhmms" if you tell it to hold on a minute. Everything flows together smoothly, making it sound like something a generation better than the current Google Assistant voice.

One of the strangest (and most impressive) parts of Duplex is that there isn't a single "Duplex voice." For every call, Duplex would put on a new, distinct personality. Sometimes Duplex come across as male; sometimes female. Some voices were higher and younger sounding; some were nasally, and some even sounded cute.

And The Verge's Dieter Bohn:

Duplex conveyed politeness in the demos we saw. It paused with a little "mmhmm" when the called human asked it to wait, a pragmatic tactic Huffman called "conversational acknowledgement". It showed that Duplex was still on the line and listening, but would wait for the human to continue speaking.

It handled a bunch of interruptions, out of order questions, and even weird discursive statements pretty well. When a human sounded confused or flustered, Duplex took a tone that was almost apologetic. It really seems to be designed to be a super considerate and non-confrontational customer on the phone.

All calls started with Duplex identifying itself as an automated service that would also record the calls, giving the person on the receiving end of the line the opportunity to object. Such objections are handled gracefully, with the call being handed over to a human operator at Google on an unrecorded line. The human fallback is a crucial element of the system, according to Google, because regardless of permission, not every call will go smoothly.

Google Duplex will roll out in limited testing over the coming weeks and months.

‘Machina’ brings support for running Linux on top of Fuchsia

One of the greatest struggles of creating an entirely new OS, especially today, is the chicken-and-egg problem. Without good apps, why would consumers buy a product? And conversely, with no consumers, why would developers make apps?

We've looked, time and time again, at the possibility of Fuchsia getting Android compatibility, but what if it didn't stop there? If Fuchsia is to be a full-fledged laptop/desktop OS, shouldn't it also have some compatibility with apps for a traditional OS?

This is where the 'Guest' app becomes relevant. Guest allows you to boot up a virtual OS, inside of Fuchsia. Officially, Guest supports Zircon (Fuchsia) and Linux-based OSes (including Debian), but there’s also evidence that suggests it's being tested to work with Chrome OS. At the time of writing, I've only been able to successfully test Guest with a simple version of Linux.

Fuchsia is clearly so much more than just a research operating system. There's also a slightly older article from a few months ago looking at the various layers that make up Fuchsia, as well as various other articles about Google's new operating system.

It looks like Google is readying the Pixelbook to run Windows 10

Google's Pixelbook is some beautiful, well-built hardware, but its use of Chrome OS means that for many people, it will be too limited to be useful. Although Chrome OS is no longer entirely dependent on Web applications - it can also be used to run Android applications, and Linux application support is also in development - the lack of Windows support means that most traditional desktop applications are unusable.

But that may be changing due to indications that Google is adding Windows support to its hardware. Earlier this year, changes made to the Pixelbook's firmware indicated that Google is working on a mode called AltOS that would allow switching between Chrome OS and an "alternative OS," in some kind of dual-boot configuration. A couple candidates for that alternative OS are Google's own Fuchsia and, of course, Windows.

The Pixelbook is a nice piece of kit, but Chrome OS simply isn't good enough for me personally. The ability to run Windows would make it more desirable, but since it's not even available in The Netherlands - or in most other places, for that matter - I doubt this will attract any new buyers.

Google to remove ability to sideload Chrome extensions

We strive to ensure choice and transparency for all Chrome users as they browse the web. Part of this choice is the ability to use the hundreds of thousands of extensions available in the Chrome Web Store to customize the browsing experience in useful and productivity-boosting ways. However, we continue to receive large volumes of complaints from users about unwanted extensions causing their Chrome experience to change unexpectedly - and the majority of these complaints are attributed to confusing or deceptive uses of inline installation on websites. As we've attempted to address this problem over the past few years, we've learned that the information displayed alongside extensions in the Chrome Web Store plays a critical role in ensuring that users can make informed decisions about whether to install an extension. When installed through the Chrome Web Store, extensions are significantly less likely to be uninstalled or cause user complaints, compared to extensions installed through inline installation.

Later this summer, inline installation will be retired on all platforms. Going forward, users will only be able to install extensions from within the Chrome Web Store, where they can view all information about an extension's functionality prior to installing.

Am I the only one who's assuming this will eventually allow Google to remove all adblockers from Chrome?

AI at Google: our principles

Sundar Pichai has outlined the rules the company will follow when it comes to the development and application of AI.

We recognize that such powerful technology raises equally powerful questions about its use. How AI is developed and used will have a significant impact on society for many years to come. As a leader in AI, we feel a deep responsibility to get this right. So today, we’re announcing seven principles to guide our work going forward. These are not theoretical concepts; they are concrete standards that will actively govern our research and product development and will impact our business decisions.

We acknowledge that this area is dynamic and evolving, and we will approach our work with humility, a commitment to internal and external engagement, and a willingness to adapt our approach as we learn over time.

It honestly blows my mind that we've already reached the point where we need to set rules for the development of artificial intelligence, and it blows my mind even more that we seem to have to rely on corporations self-regulating - which effectively means there are no rules at all. For now it feels like "artificial intelligence" isn't really intelligence in the sense of what humans and some other animals display, but once algorithms and computers start learning about more than jut identifying dog pictures or mimicking human voice inflections, things might snowball a lot quicker than we expect.

AI is clearly way beyond my comfort zone, and I find it very difficult to properly ascertain the risks involved. For once, I'd like society and governments to be on top of a technological development instead of discovering after the fact that we let it all go horribly wrong.

Google plans not to renew its contract with the US military

Google will not seek another contract for its controversial work providing artificial intelligence to the U.S. Department of Defense for analyzing drone footage after its current contract expires.

Google Cloud CEO Diane Greene announced the decision at a meeting with employees Friday morning, three sources told Gizmodo. The current contract expires in 2019 and there will not be a follow-up contract, Greene said. The meeting, dubbed Weather Report, is a weekly update on Google Cloud’s business.

Google would not choose to pursue Maven today because the backlash has been terrible for the company, Greene said, adding that the decision was made at a time when Google was more aggressively pursuing military work. The company plans to unveil new ethical principles about its use of AI next week. A Google spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions about Greene's comments.

A good move, and it shows that internal pressure can definitely work to enact change inside a corporation.

How a Pentagon contract became an identity crisis for Google

Dr. Li's concern about the implications of military contracts for Google has proved prescient. The company's relationship with the Defense Department since it won a share of the contract for the Maven program, which uses artificial intelligence to interpret video images and could be used to improve the targeting of drone strikes, has touched off an existential crisis, according to emails and documents reviewed by The Times as well as interviews with about a dozen current and former Google employees.

It has fractured Google's work force, fueled heated staff meetings and internal exchanges, and prompted some employees to resign. The dispute has caused grief for some senior Google officials, including Dr. Li, as they try to straddle the gap between scientists with deep moral objections and salespeople salivating over defense contracts.

"Don't be evil" and drone strikes simply don't mix. There's not much more to it, and it makes perfect sense that Google employees are having issues with this. How Google handles this will mark an important turning point for the company.

Google’s Duplex will warn that calls are recorded

Since Google revealed a robo-caller that sounds eerily human earlier this month, the company has faced plenty of questions about how it works. Employees got some answers this week.

On Thursday, the Alphabet Inc. unit shared more details on how the Duplex robot-calling feature will operate when it's released publicly, according to people familiar with the discussion. Duplex is an extension of the company's voice-based digital assistant that automatically phones local businesses and speaks with workers there to book appointments.

At Google’s weekly TGIF staff meeting on Thursday, executives gave employees their first full Duplex demo and told them the bot would identify itself as the Google assistant. It will also inform people on the phone that the line is being recorded in certain jurisdictions, the people said. They asked not to be identified discussing private matters. A Google spokesman declined to comment.

This is a good step, and while the technology is awesome, I'm still quite reluctant about whether or not we really need this. Aside from the very legitimate use cases for people with disabilities, to whom this technology could be life-changing, I'm wondering just what regular users get out of it.

Selfish Ledger is an unsettling vision of Google social engineering

Google has built a multibillion-dollar business out of knowing everything about its users. Now, a video produced within Google and obtained by The Verge offers a stunningly ambitious and unsettling look at how some at the company envision using that information in the future.

The video was made in late 2016 by Nick Foster, the head of design at X (formerly Google X), and shared internally within Google. It imagines a future of total data collection, where Google helps nudge users into alignment with their goals, custom-prints personalized devices to collect more data, and even guides the behavior of entire populations to solve global problems like poverty and disease.

This is exactly as dystopian and deeply creepy as you think it is. My biggest concern is not that this video exists or that companies such as Google are thinking about this - my biggest concern is that a whole generation of people already seem to accept this as the new normal even before it's a reality.

Evolving Chrome’s security indicators

Previously, HTTP usage was too high to mark all HTTP pages with a strong red warning, but in October 2018 (Chrome 70), we'll start showing the red "not secure" warning when users enter data on HTTP pages.

Seemingly small change, but still hugely significant. Right now, HTTPS pages are marked as secure, and HTTP pages are not marked at all. In the future, HTTPS pages will not be marked, while HTTP pages will be marked as insecure.

Google will make its paid storage plans cheaper

Google is rolling out new changes to its storage plans that include a new, low-cost storage plan and half off the price of its 2TB storage option, the company announced today. It's also converting all Google Drive paid storage plans to Google One, perhaps in part because you’ll now have one-tap access to Google’s live customer service.

Google One will get a new $2.99 a month option that gets you 200GB of storage. The 2TB plan, which usually costs $19.99 per month, will now cost $9.99 a month. Finally, the 1TB plan that costs $9.99 a month is getting removed. The other plans for 10, 20, or 30TB won’t see any changes.

This makes Apple's paltry iCloud offerings look even worse than they already did.

Google’s plan to make tech less addictive

We know that our smartphones are making us unhappy. At its annual developer's conference this week, Google revealed that 70% of its users actually want help balancing their digital lives. What's not so clear is what the smartphone manufacturers of the world should do about it. After all, it's in their business interests to make their phones as engaging - or addictive - as possible.

Yet at I/O, Google introduced a clever and aggressive response to its own habit-forming products. It's a broad initiative called Digital Wellbeing that CEO Sundar Pichai says will ultimately affect every Google product. "It's clear that technology can be a powerful force, but it's equally clear that we can't just be wide-eyed about ," said Pichai on stage at Google's I/O conference. "We feel a deep sense of responsibility to get this right."

My cinical read on this is that since these are all optional features that will most likely be turned off by default, people will simply never turn them on, unless they themselves have a desire to lessen their smartphone use.

Google’s preparations for Europe’s new data protection law

Last year, we outlined Google's commitment to comply with Europe's new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), across all of the services we provide in the European Union. We've been working on our compliance efforts for over eighteen months, and ahead of the new law coming into effect, here's an update on some of the key steps we've taken.

A few insights into how Google will handle the data of EU citizens.

Google’s software design is having a reformation

Duarte, along with seven other designers at Google, was speaking to about a dozen reporters about what's next for Material Design, Google's system for creating software design. Maybe it's the (lapsed) Lutheran in me, but calling the original Material Design a "gospel" struck a chord. It was religiously adhered to by the Android faithful ever since it launched. Apps that followed Material Design were holy; apps that didn't were anathema. I can't count the number of times I saw an app get dismissed by the Android community because it wasn't updated for Material Design.

And to extend the metaphor (yes, please grant me an indulgence on this), it was also a very restrictive doctrine. The tools it offered helped make many Android apps feel consistent, but it also stripped away too much differentiation between them. They all ended up feeling the same. More importantly, many app makers didn't want to give up their brand to Material Design. It made too many apps look and feel identical.

Simply put, people were being too dogmatic about how Material Design apps should look.

I have a long posting history at OSNews talking about how I value consistency in GUI design, because the more consistent my UI, the less I have to think about using said UI. To me, the strictness of Material Design is a feature, not a bug - and seeing its designers consider it the other way around has me shaking my head. I don't give a rat's butt about "brands" and "differentiation" - I just want to use my damn software with as little effort as possible.

Less auteur app design, more standard controls and views.

I've been using an iPhone X since it came out, and the utter lack of consistency between iOS applications remains a stumbling block to me to this day. It'd be a shame if Material Design went down the same dark path.

The future of the Google Assistant

After the previous post honing in specifically on the Google Duplex feature, it's time to take a look at all the other features coming to the Google Assistant.

We announced our vision for the Google Assistant just two years ago at I/O, and since then, we've been making fast progress in bringing the Assistant to more people around the world to help them get things done. As of today, the Google Assistant is available on more than 500 million devices, it works with over 5,000 connected home devices, it's available in cars from more than 40 brands, and it's built right into the latest devices, from the Active Edge in the Pixel 2 to a dedicated Assistant key in the LG G7 ThinQ. Plus, it'll be available in more than 30 languages and 80 countries by the end of the year.

Today at I/O, we're sharing our vision for the next phase of the Google Assistant, as we make it more naturally conversational, visually assistive, and helpful in getting things done.

The new features will roll out over the coming months.

Google Duplex is an AI that makes natural phonecalls

This is both the scariest and the most amazing technology Google demoed on stage during I/O today.

Today we announce Google Duplex, a new technology for conducting natural conversations to carry out “real world” tasks over the phone. The technology is directed towards completing specific tasks, such as scheduling certain types of appointments. For such tasks, the system makes the conversational experience as natural as possible, allowing people to speak normally, like they would to another person, without having to adapt to a machine.

You must listen to the recorded conversations where a computer is making appointments with a hair salon and restaurant. The computer-generated half of the conversation sounds incredibly natural, with interruptions, "uhs", and so on. It even managed to fully understand the heavy accent of the restaurant worker, which even I had a hard time understanding at times. I am absolutely stunned this is even possible.

This is downright amazing, and will be built into the Google Assistant - so it can make appointments for you. While I doubt I'd ever even want to use something like this, there's no denying the technology is incredibly advanced. I am wondering, though, about the possible negative consequences of this technology, especially combined with advanced video editing tools.

Flutter beta 3 released, Fuchsia gets initial ART support

Tomorrow at Google I/O’s developers keynote, we will see the official launch of Flutter Beta 3. This beta is an important step towards the 1.0 build for Flutter, with a heavy focus on solidifying the improvements that Google has been working since they launched the initial Flutter Beta.

First and foremost among those improvements is the implementation of the Dart 2 programming language. The second version of Dart was designed specifically with the challenges that early Flutter builds ran into in mind, and brings some substantial changes, including strong typing, cleaner syntax, and an updated developer tool chain.

Flutter and Dart are also important parts of Fuchsia. And on that note, might I point out that Fuchsia is getting support for ART, the Android Runtime?

Linux applications on Chrome OS will use Material Design

After the recent news about Linux applications coming to Chrome OS, we now also know what they will look like.

The Chrome OS developers have been working out the stylistic elements of what you'll see once you open your first native Linux apps in Chrome OS, and they've opted for Adapta, a popular Material Design-inspired Gtk theme that can be used on many of your favorite GNU/Linux distributions.

This project may finally make Linux on the desktop happen.

Linux apps on Chrome OS: an overview

Here's all you need to know about Google's year-long secretive development of Linux app functionality in Chrome OS, also known as Project Crostini.

In a nutshell, it's a way to run regular Linux applications on Chrome OS without compromising security or enabling developer mode. The (not yet available) official setting states that it's to "Run Linux tools, editors, and IDEs on your Chromebook."

Crostini is a culmination of several years of development that enabled the functionality to run securely enough to meet Chrome OS's high-security standards. To understand why it's only just appearing, it's best to look at what came before.

This should make easy to manage, safe, and secure ChromeBooks infinitely more attractive to developers.