Google definitely took everyone by surprise when it showed off its unnervingly accurate Google Duplex tech here at I/O 2018. The Google Assistant was heard calling a hair salon to setup an appointment on behalf of a user and the conversation was extremely natural and human-like. Not only was the Google Assistant highly fluent, it took pauses between the conversation just like a human would and sounded more life-like too. The AI system developed by Google to make this possible has been under development for years, but it's still at an experimental stage. Google was able to achieve this natural Assistant conversation because all Duplex can do right now are three very narrow tasks - Ask for a business' closing hours, make hair appointments and make restaurant reservations. It is not a general purpose AI that can make any type of phone call, atleast not yet.
For the hair dresser appointment use case, Google made a large volume of sample hair dresser appointment calls to teach its machine learning systems how to tackle any possible conversational scenario when the Google Assistant makes these calls on behalf of consumers. However, if in the middle of the appointment call the conversation strays to a different subject than the core purpose of booking the appointment, the Google Assistant will not know what to do.
In this case, Google has trained the Assistant to bow out of the conversation by saying something like “Hey, we have a bad connection, I’ll call back later.” This does seem unfair to the other person on the receiving end and is detrimental to the Assistant user whose appointment might not get placed during that call. However, Google has learnt over the course of training the Assistant that conversations don’t really wear off the subject in this fashion, especially when a customer calls a business for the purpose of making an appointment or placing a booking.
This brings us to the question of whether it is fair at all for the person at the receiving end of the Assistant call to not know they are speaking to an AI and not a real person. Thanks to WaveNet and Google Duplex, the Assistant sounds extremely natural and human-like and it is almost difficult to tell it apart from a real person. To solve this problem, Google does have a plan to have the Assistant introduce itself to the receiver when it makes the call, but this introduction will also take a more natural sounding approach rather than a robotic one. The Google Assistant could possibly be programmed to say something like “Hi, I am Linda’s Assistant speaking,” rather that something like “Hello, this is the Google Assistant”.
One has to understand Google does not want to roll out Duplex to a wide range of users right now simply because the company wants to experiment with how comfortable businesses are receiving these Assistant calls. This is why, the current thinking is that these experiments will be restricted to Assistant users in the US, before a wider rollout can be thought of. Naturally, language restrictions are also to be taken into account before the Assistant gets these abilities in other regions like India, as well as the fact that every population has a different way of interacting with businesses, so Google will probably have to study that too before Duplex tech can be rolled out to other countries.
Coming back to the experience of using the Google Assistant to place calls, users will see the digital helper revert with textual and visual information on smartphones about appointments. If the business is closed, the Google Assistant will tell the user that it was shut at the time the call was placed and that it will try calling once again to place the same appointment. You can see how this information is displayed to the user in the image below.
The image is not clear as it was taken during a presentation, but gives a general idea of what the UI will look like
A relevant concern over Google Duplex is that the Assistant can potentially be misused by a user to make multiple calls to a business to cause disturbance or for the sake of plain ol' mischief. To avoid this, Google is looking to place restrictions on the number of times a user can make the Assistant call a business. Any given user account will not be able to fire too many calls. What’s too many calls? We don’t know yet. We are also not sure how rescheduling appointments will work and if users will get the ability to reschedule or cancel a reservation multiple times. However, the Assistant’s appointment rescheduling skills should not be too further away from any regular service app that allows cancellation and rebooking a number or times.
A plus point, both for users and businesses that are not on any online service platform, is that the Google Assistant will send notifications to the user to remind him/her about their appointment or table booking. This way, the business that never had a service like this available to it, will now have lesser number of cancellations due to a forgotten appointment. For the user too, the benefit of this feature is pretty clear. Users will not only be reminded of their appointments, they will also be able to add them to their calendars. Another obvious benefit of the service is that users can reach businesses even when they have limited or low connectivity. What's not clear is how users will be charged for these calls, or if they will be charged at all.
For now, Google Duplex seems like a very interesting experiment and like any other new technology, it will have to go through a prolonged testing period for it to be relevant to both businesses and users. We will hear more about Google Duplex and Assistant calling later this year when Google starts it’s US rollout.