New technology deserves healthy dose of skepticism

Thursday, May 10, 2018

If you’ve signed up for anything online, you may have been amused by the final box you’re asked to check.

It’s the one that’s labeled “I am not a robot.”

Soon, we may all be hoping for a similar, more effective system for our telephones.

If you’re like most of us, you’ve probably noticed an uptick in nuisance calls trying to sign you up for insurance, “free” vacations or credit cards.

Answer the phone, and you may or may not be talking to a robot.

On Tuesday, Google unveiled a computer assistant that can fool people on the other end of the line into thinking they’re talking to a human — at least for a time.

It reminds us of a scene from “Omaha, the Movie” where a call center employee follows a script for any conceivable response — including, “I just live in a trailer and like to watch Matlock.”

Except, in this case, it’s a computer with a human-like voice that’s searching its database of possible answers at the speed of light.

While most of us trust Google to varying degrees, none of us trust the spammers who are likely to get ahold of the technology once it becomes widely available for uses such as scamming seniors, making malicious calls or using the voices of specific people.

For a hint, check out the video of former President Barack Obama delivering a PSA about fake news (http://bit.ly/2ItfyL3).

For the record, it was the creation of BuzzFeed and Jordan Peele, comedian, writer, director and Oscar winner, using state-of-the-art software.

But it’s doubtless already been shared online by those who accepted it as genuine.

Both video and audio capabilities raise many new legal questions, such as whether or not people have the right to know whether they’re talking to a machine or have the right to refuse.

Plus, how about the legality of recording conversations — already a concern for home assistants like Amazon’s Echo — and laws like those in California and several other states where it is already illegal to record phone calls without the consent of both caller and the person being called.

It will take a while for legislators, the courts, telecommunications companies, federal and state regulators to sort out.

Meanwhile, it behooves all of us to be a little more tech-savvy and skeptical about everything we see and hear, especially online.

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