Google is getting closer to introducing its new Duplex AI into the real world, Duplex being the assistive AI that Google built to talk like a human — complete with umms, pauses and the like — as it completes basic tasks like setting hair appointments or booking a restaurant reservation.
Over “the coming weeks,” according to reports out of some private demos Google hosted with select journalists this week, Google will be rolling out real-world testing of Duplex under limited and specific circumstances. It comes about a month after Google first showed off Duplex at the company’s I/O developer conference, wowing attendees with how effectively the AI was able to accomplish simple tests while also sounding indistinguishable from a human.
Fast forward to this week. In restaurants in Mountain View as well as New York City, Google turned a handful of journalists into faux restaurant workers and had them put Duplex through the paces, within the limited scope of pretending to field reservation requests. Ron Amadeo from Ars Technica, for example, was on hand for the NYC demo at the THEP Thai Restaurant:
“During the demonstration period,” he notes, “things went much more according to plan. Over the course of the event, we heard several calls, start to finish, handled over a live phone system. To start, a Google rep went around the room and took reservation requirements from the group, things like “What time should the reservation be for?” or “How many people?” Our requirements were punched into a computer, and the phone soon rang. Journalists—err, restaurant employees—could dictate the direction of the call however they so choose. Some put in an effort to confuse Duplex and throw it some curveballs, but this AI worked flawlessly within the very limited scope of a restaurant reservation.”
At a demo at Oren’s Hummus Shop near Google’s Mountain View campus, CNN Tech saw a similarly smooth Duplex operate within the confines of a limited restaurant setting. It can provide basic info like available times, phone numbers and even dodge questions if you bring up something random like the weather.
To a certain person, this might seem like a strange edge-case version of dystopian customer service. That this will never become ubiquitous. I might have said the same thing, until remembering how much more I enjoy — when the option is available — to handle things via something like a business’ Facebook Messenger bot that would otherwise require you to get stuck in automated phone system hell. Perhaps the day is coming sooner than later when it will be a smooth robot voice that promises me my call is very important to it.
When Google first rolled out Duplex, by the way, we were among those who wondered about the ethics of a human-sounding robot that didn’t identify itself as such. Google didn’t ignore such concerns, which is why in the private demos this week Duplex was introducing itself on calls as Google’s “automated booking service” and noting that the call would be recorded.
If the interaction ever goes sideways, a human operator takes over for Duplex. One reporter this week heard Duplex declare, “I think I got confused. Hold on, let me get my operator.”
Here’s hoping it will always be that easy.