Google Duplex often uses humans to make its calls

Chris Davies - May 22, 2019, 2:28 pm CDT
Google Duplex often uses humans to make its calls

Google Duplex, the AI-powered restaurant reservation service which made headlines last year, relies on humans to make calls more often than you might think, new tests have revealed. Google unveiled Duplex at I/O 2018, wowing attendees with a demo of its AI-powered Assistant calling a restaurant and discussing a reservation with staff there, all apparently independent of the human user.

It had instant appeal for those who find speaking on the phone to be problematic, though Google was coy as to the details of its service. Come I/O 2019 just a few weeks ago, however, and Google announced it was ready to deploy Duplex more broadly.

What you might expect to be happening when you turn to the Assistant to make a reservation on your behalf, however, may not be what’s actually taking place. The vision of Duplex that Google presents is compellingly simple. An Android phone user tells the Assistant where they want to eat, and how many people, and the Assistant then calls the restaurant and makes the booking.

To the staff taking the reservation, it sounds just like a human speaking. The Assistant is able to answer follow-up questions, and even peppers their speech with the “ums” and “ahs” that you’d expect from a human caller. Only if arrangements get too complex for the AI to keep up is Google’s human staff meant to get involved.

The reality of Duplex right now, though, is somewhat different. In tests by the NY Times, three out of four successful bookings made by Duplex were actually handled by people. Google admits that approximately a quarter of calls placed by Duplex indeed start with a human. Of those that begin with the AI, 15-percent, the search giant says, go on to have some sort of human intervention.

That’s still a decent number of seamless AI-handled calls, it has to be said. Duplex announces at the start of each call that the restaurant staff are talking to an automated booking service, but those the newspaper talked to about the experience said that it was still very lifelike and convincing.

“Google said that Duplex was sometimes relying on people in part because it was taking a conservative approach to be respectful toward businesses,” the NY Times says. “Google will have a human involved in the call in a number of situations, like if the company is unsure of whether the business takes reservations, or if the user of the assistant might be a spammer.”

Indeed, according to the people on the Duplex team, while the project may seem like it is trying to do away with humans altogether, the reality is that they’re “not aggressively” attempting to remove any people from the system. Instead the strategy is to progressively minimize how often humans need to get involved in the calls.

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