What is Google Duplex? The smartest chatbot ever, explained

The world’s intro to Google Duplex — technology both impressive and a bit on the creepy side –featured a human-sounding robot having a conversation with a person who couldn’t even tell that they were talking to a robot. The demo during Google I/O 2018 freaked some people out, but it impressed our Mobile Editor Julian Chokkattu, who got a chance to try out Duplex recently.

Google Duplex is a big leap in the evolution of artificial intelligence. No, it won’t lead to human-like robots that can do the laundry or go shopping like in the movie I, Robot (at least not anytime soon). But Google Duplex is a huge step in terms of A.I.’s ability to more naturally converse with humans. But what is it?

What exactly is Google Duplex?

“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 May blog post announcing the technology.

For years, businesses have been trying to create a way for people to have conversations with computers. Almost every time we call a business, we encounter an automated phone system. We have virtual assistants on our phones and virtual assistant-powered speakers in our homes. But although these computer systems can be helpful, they have their shortcomings.

In a blog post, Google notes that one of the biggest problems with these systems is that the user has to adjust to the system, instead of the system adjusting to the user. Think about all of the times you have to repeat yourself when you’re on the phone with an automated system, or all of the times that a virtual assistant hears something different than what you actually said.

Google Duplex helps with these problems by allowing the computer to have a natural conversation with a human. The A.I. system adjusts to the person, instead of the person adjusting to the system. Therefore, the person can speak normally, just as they would if they were speaking to another person. Google Duplex also makes it so the computer system sounds like a human. It uses a natural tone and uses words and phrases like “um” and “uh” just like a human person would. During a conversation, the A.I. system can also handle interruptions and elaborate.

At the center of Google Duplex is a recurrent neural network that was built using a machine learning platform called TensorFlow Extend (TFX). When the system makes a phone call, it is pretty much indistinguishable from a live human being. You can hear Google Duplex scheduling an appointment and holding a phone conversation below.

What Can Google Duplex Do For You?

The main thing Google Duplex will be able to do for you is handle some of your busy work. It can make calls on your behalf, schedule appointments, or call to check the hours of operation at a business, for instance. Now, it can’t make that uncomfortable break-up call for you, but it can reserve you a table at a participating restaurant or call and make you an appointment at a hair salon. For instance, if you tell Google Assistant you want to go to a specific restaurant next Friday at 7 p.m., the system will call and make a reservation for you and then notify you when it’s confirmed.

When is Google Duplex Coming Out?

In early October, Google announced that Duplex functionality would start rolling out to Pixel phones in November on a city-by-city basis, starting with New York City. Though it’s fairly limited in scope right now, we can see the technology growing into something we use often in our daily lives.

Meanwhile, Duplex launched over the summer at some restaurants and hair salons in certain test markets, and you can use Google Assistant on your phone or via your Google Home. You probably won’t be using the feature for quite a while though, because there’s no definite word yet on when it’s being released to the broader public.

Google Duplex on an Android phone

A few Potential Applications for Google Duplex

Imagine calling the cable company and dealing with an automated system that sounds and operates exactly like a human; one that can actually help you. There would be no more annoying IVR systems that tell you to “press 1 for billing questions or press 2 for technical issues.” Imagine if the IRS had this A.I. technology. During tax season, you wouldn’t have to wait an hour on hold for a representative, and you could ask the A.I. system your tax-related questions.

Businesses such as doctors and lawyers who regularly schedule clients could have the A.I. do that on their behalf. Small businesses can also benefit, as research shows that 60 percent of small businesses who rely on customer bookings don’t have an online booking system, according to Google’s blog.

Concerns About Google Duplex

Many people have expressed concerns about Google Duplex. Aside from the fact that it’s a bit creepy, some people are worried about privacy and security. Is it secure to have a computer calling businesses and speaking to live people on your behalf? Is it secure for the person on the other end of the line? Other people have also concerns about the potential impacts on advertising, and some people even worry about how quickly the A.I. is evolving. Google Assistant just came out a couple of years ago, and now it already sounds like an actual human on the phone.

Google has addressed a couple of these issues during our recent demo with the service. At the beginning of the call, Google Assistant identifies itself and also notes that it’s recording the call. That might make a restaurant owner take pause on having the conversation until the service become more widely used.

Emerging Tech

DeepSqueak is a machine learning A.I. that reveals what rats are chatting about

Want to know what rats are squeaking about? You'd better check out DeepSqueak, the new deep learning artificial intelligence developed by researchers at the University of Washington.
Smart Home

Google Home vs. Amazon Echo: Which one is better for you?

What happens when you compare the Google Home vs the Amazon Echo? Both smart speakers have good qualities, but what happens when you compare they're features side-by-side? We think one of these smart gadgets wins over the other.
Smart Home

What exactly is Alexa? Where does she come from? And how does she work?

While "Alexa" has become synonymous with products like the Amazon Echo, you can't actually go out and buy an "Alexa." So what is Alexa? How does she work? Here's everything you need to know about Amazon's virtual assistant.
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix, from 'Haunting of Hill House’ to ‘Norsemen’

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.
Smart Home

Miele stuns KBIS 2019 with wireless probe, self-descaling java pot, and more

Miele rocked KBIS 2019 with waves of new appliances and features. The annual Kitchen and Bathroom Industry Show is all about product launches and Miele's appliance reveal was like New York Fashion Week with a single designer.
Smart Home

Amazon’s wall clock is back on the market after Bluetooth snafus

Amazon's Alexa-enabled Wall Clock was a minor disaster when it was finally released in December because of widespread Bluetooth connectivity challenges. After some tweaks, it's now back on sale for $30.
Smart Home

The Nest Secure included a microphone no one knew about — except Google

The Nest Secure home security system has had a microphone this entire time that no one knew about, except Google. The company claims the mic was never turned on, but customers are outraged.
Mobile

From folding phones to 5G -- here's everything we saw at Galaxy Unpacked

Samsung's Galaxy Unpacked event treated us to a real parade of technological excellence, from folding phones to new fitness wearables. Here's everything we saw at Galaxy Unpacked on February 20.
Smart Home

Leviton’s Wi-Fi Load Center and Smart Circuit Breakers give your home a brain

Is your home ready for a brain transplant? Adding individual smart plugs is quick, easy, and inexpensive, but the benefits are limited to one plug at a time. Leviton's Load Center and Smart Circuit Breakers can give your home a brain.
Smart Home

GE Appliances shows off wall oven with built-in air fryer, food dehydrator

GE Appliances is taking the air fryer trend to its logical conclusion and adding one to a wall oven. The company's new oven, on display at this year's Kitchen and Bath Industry Show, also includes a food dehydrator.
Smart Home

OK Google, what else can you do? The best tips and tricks for Google Home

The Home functions in a similar fashion to its main competitor, the Amazon Echo, but has the added benefit of select Google services. Here are few tips to help you make the most of the newfangled device.
Home Theater

Reasons not to mount a TV over your fireplace (and other helpful tips)

Mounting a TV above your fireplace may be popular and it might even seem appealing, but we have some concerns. We've got a list of reasons why placing your digital picture machine over a fire should be avoided, if at all possible.
Smart Home

Colored fridges are back, baby! GE’s new appliances revive the 1950s trend

GE Appliances is coloring us surprised at KBIS 2019 by introducing new hues for its signature Cafe line of smart home appliances including four new hues launching this fall to complement its black and white options.
Smart Home

Stainless steel is so last year. In 2019, it’s all about colorful appliances

For the past couple of decades, the color of choice for appliances has been stainless steel. Now, makers are introducing ovens, fridges, and dishwashers in vibrant hues to give customers a more customized, refined look in the kitchen.