Meet Google Duplex, AI that sounds human when it calls to book appointments

Dan Baker/Digital Trends

For some people, the reason for choosing one hair salon over another is based solely on its ability to book an appointment online. At the Google I/O developer conference, CEO Sundar Pichai explained how its Google Duplex technology can help the phone-shy avoid having to actually speak to someone to make an appointment.

Around 60 percent of U.S. businesses don’t have online booking systems, according to Google. It’s been working on a way for users to give a time and date to Google Assistant, which can then make the call and set up an appointment. “It brings together all our investments over the years in natural language understanding, deep learning, text to speech,” said Pichai.

Duplex scheduling a hair salon appointment

It can be an incredibly complex interaction. Using an actual call between Google Assistant and a hair salon, Pichai showed how it would work. The user asked the Assistant to make an appointment on Tuesday morning “anytime between 10 and 12.” During the call, Google Assistant sounded convincingly human, tossing in “ums” and “uhs” in a woman’s voice. “Give me one second,” the salon employee said. “Mm-hmm,” the Assistant responded. After some back and forth, the employee made an appointment for Lisa at 10 a.m. and sent a confirmation notification to the phone’s screen. There was no appointment available at noon, the time the A.I. initially requested.

Duplex calling a restaurant

“A long-standing goal of human-computer interaction has been to enable people to have a natural conversation with computers, as they would with each other,” wrote Google Principal Engineer Yaniv Leviathan and Vice President of Engineering Yossi Matias, in a blog post announcing the technology.

Google appears to be succeeding.

For the next call, Google Assistant had to overcome a bit of a language barrier. The restaurant employee thought it was calling to make a reservation for seven people, not for the seventh. When she informed the A.I. caller that the restaurant didn’t reserve tables for parties of fewer than seven, the A.I. asked how long the wait time would be. When the employee assured the Assistant it wouldn’t be a long wait on a Wednesday, it replied, “Oh, I gotcha, thanks.”

This technology isn’t quite ready at the moment, but Google is rolling out what Pichai called an “experiment.” During holidays, restaurants and businesses often have different hours. Google plans to use its Assistant to make one phone call to a bunch of businesses, then update their holiday hours for web searches. That way, restaurants can avoid getting dozens of calls about whether or not they’re open on Memorial Day, for example. Pichai said this experiment would start in a few weeks, so if it’s not working for that holiday, check again on the Fourth of July.

As exciting as it may be to have a remarkably human-sounding bot doing all your chores on your behalf, the Duplex announcement catalyzed quite a bit of controversy around how it would identify itself on the phone. After all, wouldn’t you want to know if you were speaking to a bot rather than a live being? Now, Google has weighed in, noting that it will include disclosures in the feature.

“We understand and value the discussion around Google Duplex — as we’ve said from the beginning, transparency in the technology is important,” a Google spokeswoman said in a statement. “We are designing this feature with disclosure built-in, and we’ll make sure the system is appropriately identified. What we showed at I/O was an early technology demo, and we look forward to incorporating feedback as we develop this into a product.”

Google further clarified that Duplex will “identify itself as the Google assistant” when making phone calls on behalf of its human users. As Bloomberg reports, the tech giant informed its employees at a weekly staff meeting that the AI bot would “inform people on the phone that the line is being recorded in certain jurisdictions.” It’s not entirely clear what those jurisdictions are, and Google has not commented further on the matter.

It’s still unclear as to whether or not the businesses used in Google’s demos were alerted to the fact that they were speaking to a bot, or that they were being recorded. And in certain states, recording conversations without both speaking parties’ consent and knowledge is against the law.

Updated on May 20: Google says Duplex will alert people when their conversations are being recorded, and that they’re speaking to a bot. 


Amazon slashes the price of the Ecovacs Deebot 901 robot vacuum for one day

Amazon took a dramatic price cut for its Deal of the Day on the Alexa-compatible Ecovacs Deebot 901 robot vacuum cleaner. Digital Trends' reviewer gave the 901 high marks for room mapping and voice response with Alexa and Google Assistant.
Smart Home

From the kitchen to the bedroom, here are the best Alexa tips and tricks

Amazon's voice assistant Alexa has plenty of neat skills. So many, in fact, it seems like new ones appear every day. We've rounded up the top Echo tips and tricks to help you get the most out of your virtual assistant.

The Pixel 3 range will soon be coming to T-Mobile's network

Google's latest flagships, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, are now official and we have all the details from the October 9 event in New York City and Paris. Here's everything we know about the Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL.

The 100 best Android apps turn your phone into a jack-of-all-trades

Choosing which apps to download is tricky, especially given how enormous and cluttered the Google Play Store has become. We rounded up 100 of the best Android apps and divided them neatly, with each suited for a different occasion.
Smart Home

Google Home Hub smart display will reportedly be renamed the Google Nest Hub

Insiders reportedly familiar with Google's plans confirmed the Google Home Hub will be rebranded Google Nest Hub. Citing accidental leaks in the Google Store about the Nest Home Max, informed sources suggest a May 7 launch date.
Smart Home

Alexa, Google, Siri put their bilingual skills to the test in translation battle

One Hour Translation, an online translation company, compared how Google Home, Amazon Alexa, and Siri stack up against one another in regard to translation capabilities. The results may surprise you.

Amazon drops prices on Nespresso coffee and espresso machines

Amazon has dropped prices on Nespresso coffee machines and a milk frother in an Easter week sale. Nespresso's coffee appliances use single-serve capsules and one-button selection to produce barista-quality espresso and coffee at home.
Emerging Tech

Drown out noisy neighbors and rest easy with these white noise machines

Some people are more sensitive to sound during sleep than others. Luckily, there are a number of white noise machines on the market to mask the noise. Here are our five of our current favorites.
Smart Home

Whip it, blend it, and mix it up with the best hand mixers of 2019

A stand mixer takes up a lot of room on the counter, and it can also be quite expensive. Need an option that's not only affordable but also takes up very little real estate in your kitchen cabinets? Check out these hand mixers.
Smart Home

Power through your afternoon slump with the best espresso machines

Brew professional-style espresso drinks and become the envy of your neighborhood with one of the best espresso machines on the planet. We have options across a range of price points, perfect for any budget.
Smart Home

Watch: Police responding to an alleged buglary find a Roomba, not a robber

Police officers in Washington County, Oregon responded to a call of a potential burglary and were surprised to find the perpetrator was actually just a Roomba. Body cam footage of the encounter has been released.

Amazon slashes Easter Week prices for Dyson vacuums and air purifiers

Amazon slashed the prices on many Dyson high-tech products, including vacuum cleaners, air purifiers, and more for Easter Week. Dyson's premium household tools attract millions of fans and Amazon took deep discounts on popular products.
Smart Home

What you need to know before buying a new washer and dryer

Washers and dryers are big, expensive appliances that you'll want to last for decades. Our buying guide will help you sift through all the options and find the best machines for you.

Amazon and Best Buy halve the price of the Facebook Portal for Mother’s Day

Amazon and Best Buy both cut the price in half for the Facebook Portal smart display for Mother's Day. The Portal's smart camera will follow you as you move around the room during video calls. The Portal also has Amazon Alexa built in.