Or at least, so you never have to put it to your ear — because when was the last time you actually put your phone down?

By Jessica Plautz
June 27, 2018
Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

After first unveiling the controversial technology at its annual developer conference, Google is ready to start rolling out Google Duplex this summer.

First, what it is: Google Duplex is artificial intelligence designed to make phone calls for specific purposes, like making a restaurant reservation or scheduling a hair appointment.

Second, how it works: Using Google Assistant (for those unfamiliar, it's comparable to Siri or Alexa) through an Android phone or Google Home, a user — let's say you — can request a reservation for a specific restaurant, date and time, and number of people. From there, the artificial intelligence takes over, initiating a phone call to the restaurant and having a conversation with the person who answers the phone. In the case of restaurants, Google Duplex has been programmed to handle the typical details that would come up in that kind of conversation. After confirming, Google then sends you a message that the reservation is made, and automatically adds it to your Google Calendar. This video provides a demo:

This summer, Google Duplex will be rolled out to make restaurant reservations and hair appointments, and to check holiday hours at businesses. (Future tasks are yet to be determined, according to a company representative.) According to Google, the primary use case is for businesses that rely on appointment bookings but that are not set up with an online system, like OpenTable or Booker.

As of now, there are several limitations to the technology. Google reports that 4 out of 5 calls can be completely automated, but that in those 20% of cases where a misunderstanding arises, a human operator would need to step in (or Google Assistant would say it couldn't complete the reservation and you'd have to make that call yourself). Additionally, this AI is being developed for very specific purposes. For example the programming that makes a restaurant reservation would not be able to make you a hotel reservation (yet), and the hair appointment maker can't book you on a cruise. Google Duplex can make a reservation within a block of time on a specific day, and it can cancel it, but can't perform more complicated tasks like checking the next available reservation at the most popular restaurant in town.

But even in a simple demonstration, Google Duplex brings to mind a lot of questions. Why are two people talking to an AI-powered computer assistant rather than each other? Is this really easier than making a call? Have we collectively become this phone call-averse? Why is the computer programmed to say “uh” and “mmhmm”? What is this like for the person answering the phone? Is this a billboard along the highway to an anti-social dystopian future?

To answer the first two questions, try to think beyond the simplified demo. If the restaurant line were busy or went unanswered, or if there was a long hold time, Google Duplex could wait on your behalf or try back later, saving you time. Additionally, someone who does not speak English could have Duplex make the call instead of struggling through the conversation themselves. The technology could also improve accessibility for anyone with a disability or other communication challenges.

On to the next question. For those who are able to make the call themselves, are they so phone call averse that they can't handle a 30-second reservation? It's certainly possible. A survey done last year by LivePerson found that, globally, 69% of people prefer text messages for communication. In the U.S., the number was higher, at 73%.

But even though we apparently hate phone calls, those who do have to take them — the restaurant and hair salon staff, in this case — might dislike a robotic voice even more. That's partly why Duplex has some of the “natural” speech patterns that humans do. According to Google, the “uh”s and “mmhmm”s help with the flow of the conversation, and therefore help with getting the message across. Without them, you might imagine the demo conversation going more like what you experience with an automated voice phone tree menu. (“I'd like to speak to an operator.” [pause] “I didn't understand that, can you repeat your request? You can say ‘Reserva—” “Operator!” [pause] “I didn't understand that...”)

As for the humans who will indeed have to answer the phone, it's worth noting that businesses will enable this feature with Google. While the psychological effects of taking AI phone calls throughout the day has yet to be researched (as far as I'm aware), Google is working closely with the establishments interacting with Duplex. If they're not satisfied, this rollout is unlikely to go well.

And finally to address that dystopian future. After seeing a demo and discussing Duplex with some of the key project leaders, Google is clearly working with good intentions. At the same time, this technology — as all technology — is a work in progress. The AI being developed to make restaurant reservations could have as-yet-unforeseeable uses down the line.

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