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Google wants to help screen those incessant robocalls

Google wants to help screen those incessant robocalls
A member of Google staff shows the the new Google Pixel 3 to an attendee at a Google hardware launch event in London on Oct. 9, 2018. Copyright Jack Taylor Getty Images
Copyright Jack Taylor Getty Images
By Jasmin Boyce with NBC News Tech and Science News
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It's robots fighting robots as Google uses its artificial intelligence to respond to spam calls.


Google has a new tool to help deal with the ongoing epidemic of robocalls.

The company on Tuesday announced a feature that lets people answer calls with an automated system — a virtual assistant that deals with unwanted phone spam. The feature, "Call Screen," will be available in the upcoming Pixel 3 smartphone.

"When you get that call, and you can't or don't want to pick up, just tap the screen call button and your phone will answer for you and ask who's calling and why," Liza Ma, product manager at Google, said during the company's annual "Made By Google" event.

The program then provides a real-time transcription, leaving users with the option to pick up the call.

"You can decide whether to pick up, send a quick reply or mark the call as spam," Ma said. "You will never have to talk to another telemarketer."

The feature uses Google Assistant, the company's artificial intelligence system that can understand human speech.

When engaged, Google Assistant answers a call with a pre-recorded message: "Hi, the person you're calling is using a screening service from Google, and will get a copy of this conversation. Go ahead and say your name, and why you're calling."

Robocalls have become a major problem despite evolutions in phone technology meant to identify callers. First Orion, a company that specializes in caller ID and call blocking, released a studyin September that found close to 50 percent of all calls will be spam by 2019.

The company found that mobile scam calls jumped from 3.7 percent of total calls in 2017 to 29.2 percent in 2018.

Google's call screening feature will be user driven, prompting the user to choose from a selection of responses for the Google Assistant to relay to the caller. If the user selects "Report as Spam", the program will then say, "Please remove this number from your mailing and contact list. Thanks, and goodbye."

Currently, transcripts of the calls are not stored on the device, "but in the future, you could see your transcripts in your call history," according to Google's website. Existing concerns on data privacy and security surrounding the company could impact how storing transcripts of consumer calls are received.

The company came under fire this month after news broke on Monday that Google hid a major privacy breach from consumers. A security flaw in Google exposed upwards of 500,000 users' data, prompting the company to shut down the social network.

The new feature also highlights the growth in automated voice systems for consumers and businesses, which has caused concern among some privacy advocates and politicians. In September, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill into law preventing automated bots from pretending to be human beings.

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