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Google Duplex: AI Machines Make Calls for Consumers to SMBs

Sundar P. Google I/O 2018

During the keynote at Google’s developer conference yesterday there was an array of announcements. Perhaps the most interesting — and certainly unexpected — among them was “Google Duplex.” It’s a Turing test defying use of AI to enable machines to talk to humans over the phone.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai cited an unsourced statistic, which is probably conservative, that 60% of SMBs don’t have the capacity to do online booking. He then proceeded to demo two examples of Google’s AI technology calling local businesses to schedule appointments on behalf of consumers, one at a hair salon and one at a restaurant.

Here’s an excerpt from Google’s discussion of Duplex:

Today we announce Google Duplex, a new technology for conducting natural conversations to carry out “real world” tasks over the phone. The technology is directed towards completing specific tasks, such as scheduling certain types of appointments. For such tasks, the system makes the conversational experience as natural as possible, allowing people to speak normally, like they would to another person, without having to adapt to a machine.

The interactions, which you can listen to here, were very natural sounding and involved a complex back and forth with the business owner. Of course these were pre-recorded and designed to show off the technology. I’m sure there are lots of less successful interactions on file.

In fairness to Google, the company didn’t oversell the capability and discussed its limitations both on stage and in the associated blog post. However, the fact that Google can even show off an experimental demo like this is pretty remarkable and reflects amazing advances in AI, natural language understanding and related disciplines.

It has some pretty significant implications for both consumers and SMBs. Of course there are a few issues; how does the machine represent itself to the business owner and what happens if calls aren’t answered?  But it was pretty dramatic and represents a very unexpected way that Google might bring e-commerce or online scheduling to the mass of SMBs.

As with anything Google develops, there are probably a range of other contemplated uses. I’m curious about your thoughts:

  • Is this a generation-bridging technology?
  • Is it viable as a mainstream approach in your opinion?
  • How do you think local business owners might react?
  • What other situations might Google use this technology for?

Before you answer any of these questions or respond, listen to the audio files embedded in the Google blog post.

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