Google Duplex is about to start calling businesses for real

Chris Davies - Jun 27, 2018, 9:27 am CDT
Google Duplex is about to start calling businesses for real

Google Duplex, the controversial phone call-making AI intended to make reservations for you, will begin public testing within the next few weeks, the company has confirmed. Previewed at I/O earlier this year, Duplex may sound like a human on the call, but it’s actually the Google Assistant tasked with going through the steps of making a restaurant reservation, an appointment for a haircut, or finding out a business’ opening hours.

The demonstration at Google’s developer event wowed those present, but it wasn’t long before concerns about Duplex surfaced. Among the criticisms was the fact that, at no point during the two demo calls Google played, did Duplex identify itself to the human participants that it was an AI speaking. Google’s reluctance to discuss whether the calls were edited before playback, or to name the businesses called in the demo, added to the suspicions.

Now, Google plans to give Duplex a very limited roll-out. A small number of companies in San Francisco and New York will be working in this beta. Meanwhile, only a select group of testers will get to trigger Duplex calls from their devices.

After the post-I/O furore, Google is leaning heavily on explaining just how Duplex will make clear it’s not actually a human on the line. When the restaurant or other business answers, the Assistant will first explain what it is. “Hi, I’m the Google Assistant calling to make a reservation for a client,” it will tell them. “This automated call will be recorded.”

Even with that, it’s not hard to see how those on the line might quickly forget that they’re not talking to another human. It’s not just the “um,” “err,” and “yeah” that Duplex sprinkles into the conversation, mimicking human speech, it’s also the intonation and pacing. Altogether, it sounds a lot more natural than we’ve come to expect from clunky voice interfaces on the phone.

If Duplex gets stumped, meanwhile, it’s designed to hand over the call to an actual human operator. Google has different voices it will switch between, too, and to begin with it’ll only allow Duplex to do three things: make restaurant reservations, hair salon bookings, or check a business’ holiday hours. Businesses will be able to opt out of getting calls from Duplex, too, when there’s a more broader roll-out.

Exactly when that will actually happen is unclear at this stage. Google isn’t saying how many companies are taking part in this early beta, or naming the companies, and it’s similarly uncertain how many people are testing the system as customers. Still, if you’re someone who just hates picking up the phone and making a call, this might be good news.

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