This past Wednesday, Google announced a series of AI-heavy updates to its suite of products at its annual I/O conference. Thanks to machine learning, Google Maps will now be able to learn from your restaurant preferences when suggesting eateries. A new Gmail feature will make autocomplete emails even smarter. But the update that most wowed the audience was a phone call.
Google showed off a new feature for its Assistant app: the ability to automate a conversation with a person who was unaware she wasn’t speaking with a human; Assistant even added in an “mmhmm” and an “um” for an incredibly realistic demo. (Google has clarified that the digital voice will identify that it is not an actual person.) This advancement is part of Google Duplex, Google’s next step into AI, and it will begin testing inside Assistant this summer.
“The technology is directed towards completing specific tasks, such as scheduling certain types of appointments,” Google wrote in a blog post about the update. “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.” While the actual release date is unknown, what feels certain is that we are rapidly speeding toward a world in which we can free ourselves of the phone calls we dread.
A future without human-made telephone calls has been in the works for a while. A Pew Research Center study in 2011 found that while voice calling had changed little on a year-to-year basis up to that point, users who identified themselves as more active texters preferred to be contacted via text. In 2015, Pew reexamined how Americans were using smartphones, first noting that ownership was up 35 percent in the four years since it began looking at these effects. By that point, texting had taken a slight lead over voice and video calls as the dominant smartphone activity.
Also in 2015, mobile measurement firm Informate released a report on texting and calling behavior, finding that consumers send and receive five times as many texts a day as they make phone calls.
There are a slew of messaging apps that compete with voice calls. There’s Facebook Messenger, which, as of September 2017, hit 1.3 billion monthly active users. WhatsApp had 1.5 billion monthly active users in January. Then there are iMessage, Line, and WeChat. There is a messaging app for nearly everyone, in every country, in every language, everywhere. It is easier than ever to eschew a voice call for a chat app, especially when using these apps is far cheaper than placing a long-distance call.
Beyond typed communication, advancements in automating how we receive and respond to our inbox are eliminating the need for voice calls. Apple introduced voicemail transcription with iOS 10, a feature that works only with an iPhone 6s or newer model. The update takes screening calls to a whole new level: Now, not only can you hit ignore and listen to whatever the caller had to say later, but you can also eliminate the process of listening to a human voice and read the message, as if it were just another text. You can even reply to the message via text. Voicemail was already in decline as early as 2012, when many consumers were using third-party voicemail-to-email apps—and there are many new apps, in addition to your smartphone’s native transcription, that are happy to kill it entirely.
Then there are the bots—or, at least, the perpetual promise of the bots. In 2016, developers (specifically for Facebook) were ready to transform the world of telecommunication with bots that would hold conversations as well as humans. These would be bots for restaurants, so you could quickly and easily order takeout via Facebook Messenger, or bots for a clothing store, so you could ask a question about sizing and then order a new shirt. The idea was that every customer-service communication could be performed by a bot, which would cut down on the need for support emails and phone calls. The theory was sound, the practice was not, and it’s been a bit of a slog to get useful bots up and running and widely adopted. But that doesn’t mean the future won’t push us in that direction. Tools like Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant are helping users become more comfortable with the concept of talking to something other than a human. And if we become increasingly put off with voice-to-voice phone calls, then bot-led alternatives will begin to sound better and better.
Amid all of this progress, it’s important to ask what we’re losing—if anything. Right now, all of the new alternatives for calls and avoiding them are targeting the ones we don’t want to make: scheduling appointments, slogging through the pharmacy directory, and making reservations. This technology isn’t meant to replace calls to mom or important long-distance chats, and it probably won’t. (Although there’s surely someone out there who will immediately begin placing all of his calls through Assistant, personal or not.) But the long-term effect could be that the new innovations increase our growing discomfort with voice calls, and envelop a generation already mystified by them in a world of silent telecommunication. The future might be much quieter than we thought.