One of the most surprising things Google showcased at its annual developer conference in May wasn’t a new feature for Android, Chrome OS, search, or web. It was an audio clip of someone making phone calls to book an appointment at a hair salon and make a reservation at a restaurant.
And when I say “someone,” I mean software called Google Duplex that leverages Google’s voice recognition technology, speech technology, and a whole bunch of other services to act and sound like a real person rather than a computer.
Now Google is getting ready to unleash Duplex on the real world… but Google is starting small.
At first, Duplex will only be able to make calls to a small set of businesses that have agreed to work with Google. And initially users will only be able to ask Google Assistant to check holiday hours for those stores.
Eventually the goal is to add support for making restaurant reservations and book hair salon/barber shop appointments. But those features won’t be available until later this summer at the soonest.
The idea is to bridge the gap between the things you can already do online and those that would normally require a phone call. If I want to know whether a local restaurant or other business is currently open I can usually find out just by checking its Google Maps listing. But some businesses don’t automatically share that information with Google… or the details might not be accurate if there are different hours in the summer or around holidays.
So by asking Google Assistant for the hours, it can make a phone call to check for you. This isn’t something you’ll have to jump through extra hoops for: the call will be made on your behalf, but you won’t hear it. Assistant will just let you know when it’s gathered the information.
And once it does have holiday hours for a business, other people who ask Google Assistant for the same information won’t have to wait, since Google’s database will automatically be updated.
Reservations and appointments are a bit trickier, since they tend to be more of a one-time transaction between a specific individual and a specific business.
What surprised many people about the demo during Google I/O was just how much Duplex sounded like a real person on the phone. Some folks suspected the demo was highly edited. Others were concerned that the person on the other end of the phone call might not know they were talking to a computer.
So Google invited a bunch of journalists to events this week to show how the system works. Everyone who attended reports that Duplex really does sound just as person-like as promised, complete with umms and errs during conversation. That breaks down a bit in some situations (such as when you ask it to spell out a name, letter by letter). But Google insists it’s not trying to trick anyone: within the first few seconds of a phone call, Duplex will announce that it’s the Google Assistant making a call for a client.
Phone calls placed to anyone in one of the 11 states where it’s illegal to record a conversation without disclosing it first, Duplex will also make it clear that the call is being recorded (presumably giving businesses a chance to hang up if they don’t want their data saved by Google… even if it’s ostensibly just to help improve the service).
In situations where Duplex was unable to complete a reservation, or where the booking agent on the other end of the phone asked to speak to a person, the call was redirected to a human being. It’s good to know there’s a fallback… at least until Google can perfect the technology.
In some ways, this all feels very futuristic… but in others, Duplex feels a bit like a stopgap measure until everything’s online. If more businesses listed their holiday hours online and/or accepted reservations over the internet then maybe Duplex (in its current form) wouldn’t be necessary.
Then again, that’s assuming a world where every small business and every potential customers has access to a smartphone or other technology that would allow them to make online-only transactions. And it’s possible that world may never come, in which case Duplex is more of a “last mile” solution.