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I was in a Brooklyn restaurant the other week and overheard a young man — definitely a millennial like myself — arguing with an older couple, most likely his parents, about a variety of topics: healthcare, the point of full-time employment, phones. He really hates using the phone, and to prove just how unnecessary it’s become, he pointed to Google Duplex.
Google Duplex is a new AI assistant that performs tasks over the phone like booking a haircut or making a restaurant reservation, and its unveiling at Google’s developer event in May made for what the Verge called “perhaps the most jaw-dropping moment” of CEO Sundar Pichai’s keynote speech (skip ahead to 35:00). In a replay of a real phone conversation with a restaurant employee, a shockingly human-sounding robot booked a reservation, negotiating misunderstandings over the date and number of people without missing a beat.
Pichai said at the time that Google Duplex was years in the making, and today, a fully functional version of the technology is still a ways off. However, the company is now starting to test Google Duplex with a relatively small set of users and businesses — bit by bit, because it’s very much in the process of refining the system.
To begin, Google Duplex will call businesses to ask for their holiday hours. (The twist here is that once it’s gotten that information, it will update Google’s listing to save other people time on the same query.) Later this summer, Google Duplex will ramp up to make restaurant reservations and hair appointments. The goal is to expand to other kinds of bookings, but for now, it’s just restaurants and hair salons.
Google Duplex uses a variety of voices, which incorporate “um”s and “uh”s to their responses the way that people do. (For a very thorough review of the uncanny experience, I’ll refer you to Ars Technica.) Though realism is the aim, Google isn’t trying to fool restaurant and salon employees into thinking that they’re talking to a human: right off the bat, the robot identifies itself as Google Assistant and says that the call will be recorded.
Obviously, this could make the process of booking a beauty appointment much more efficient, starting with the fact that Google Duplex will call the business back if it doesn’t get through on the first try. (Have you ever let a haircut lapse because nobody picked up? I have.) Google also argues that by automatically reminding people of their upcoming commitments and giving them the option to reschedule or cancel, it could reduce the number of ghosted appointments that a business experiences.
A Google survey from April 2018 found that 60 percent of small businesses don’t offer online bookings, so if its numbers and hypotheses are right, it could do so on a large scale. At the very least, it’ll help that one dude in the restaurant never have to talk to a human on the phone again.