We were introduced to Google Duplex at the keynote of the opening of Google I/O at the beginning of last May: the new Google assistant can make phone calls on our behalf to reserve a table in restaurant, talk to hairdressing salons, and even make a doctor’s appointment. In short, the kind of calls that most of us would rather avoid.
Sundar Pichai’s presentation, which I have used in several of my conferences, featured a voice with perfectly natural and human inflections, completely indistinguishable from a person, making calls and holding conversations with people who had no idea they were talking to a robotic assistant. In fact, the presentation sparked a discussion on the ethics of this type of technology and to what extent there was some kind of some supposed human right that we should know when we are talking to a robot. Google subsequently promised it would work on incorporating some kind of warning or disclosure in calls originated through this technology, and continued with its development work.
Now, a few months after the launch, an article in Venture Beat updates us on Duplex’s progress. Tests have already been extended from a few trusted users to a larger group of Google Pixel phone owners in Atlanta, New York, Phoenix and San Francisco, whose owners can request the service to make reservations at establishments such as restaurants or hairdressers that have not opted out of the experiment via their Google profile. If you live in those areas, have a Google Pixel smartphone, but are not included in the group, the assistant simply gives you the phone number to do it yourself.
Two videos linked in Venture Beat’s article show the experience from both sides: somebody requesting and configuring the call, which seems almost as tedious as making the call yourself, and from the perspective of an establishment receiving one, showing that Google is not transparent about telling the other party that the call is being made by a chatbot, but instead stating simply that the call comes from Google and can be recorded. Google says that while most Duplex calls are automated, others are made by human operators, which is what the initial warning is presumably about. It is possible that Google is carrying out A/B tests, or that it is simply still working on some aspects of its development. Either way, in both videos, the process seems to work: it is possible to ask the assistant to recommend a restaurant, for example, and then make the reservation and update your agenda accordingly, as well as cancelling or changing the reservation.
Google will likely use Duplex to promote its hardware, and as in the past, probably extend it to other terminals at some point in the future. It seems inevitable that we’re going to have to get used to making and receiving automated calls, and that they may well be more efficient by cutting out at least half of the human equation. In practice, those of us who are already comfortable using Siri, Google Assistant or Alexa will have little problem getting on the program. That said, it is worth asking what will happen if businesses start using this type of technology to make sales calls, given the reduced cost…
The development of indiscernible human voice interfaces is simply a matter of implementation: the technology already exists and is present in assistants of all kinds that live in our pockets or our homes. We’re going to have to give this some serious thought.