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Google today quietly updated a support page to indicate that Google Duplex, its AI chat agent that can arrange appointments over the phone, is now being used in the U.K., Australia, and Canada in a limited capacity. The expansion follows a pilot in New Zealand to confirm holiday hours for a small group of local businesses. It also comes as Google looks to leverage Duplex to confirm which restaurants are closed as a result of shelter-in-place orders intended to stem the spread of COVID-19.
The updated page provides phone numbers Duplex will draw from to call businesses in each country. Previously, the page listed numbers only for the U.S. and New Zealand.
In a March blog post, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said the company was increasingly using Duplex “where possible” to contact businesses about their hours so it can reflect them accurately on Google Search and Google Maps. A Google spokesperson told VentureBeat via email that this rollout is part of that effort.
Late last year, Google brought Duplex to select “devices that can access Search or Maps,” expanding its availability beyond Pixel phones, iOS devices, and select third-party Android devices. To be clear, it’s not quite the Duplex experience Google demoed at its I/O 2018 developers conference in May — in the U.K., Australia, and Canada, Duplex can’t make restaurant reservations as it can in 48 U.S. states. But it’s no longer limited to businesses Google has explicitly partnered with through its Reserve with Google program.
At the beginning of an exchange, Duplex makes it clear that the call is automated, and it doesn’t call late at night or early in the morning. In all countries, Duplex informs the person on the other end that they’re being recorded. If restaurant owners and front of house staff respond with “I don’t want to be recorded” or some variation of the phrase, the call is handed off to a human operator on an unrecorded line. (Those operators also annotate the call transcripts used to train Duplex’s algorithms.)
Here’s how a Duplex call sounds from a restaurant’s perspective. We recorded this call in March as part of a test of Duplex’s capabilities:
Google received a ton of criticism after its initial Duplex demo in 2018 — many were not amused by Google Assistant mimicking a human so well. In June of that year, the company promised that Google Assistant using Duplex would first introduce itself.
Part of the reason Duplex sounds so natural is because it taps Google’s sophisticated WaveNet audio processing neural network and intelligently inserts “speech disfluencies” — the “ums” and “ahs” people make involuntarily in the course of a conversation. These come from a branch of linguistics known as pragmatics, which deals with language in use and the contexts in which it is used — including things like taking turns in conversation, text organization, and presupposition.
When we tested Duplex in late 2019, Google said that although a majority of Duplex calls are made using the automated system, others are conducted with human operators. The company declined to say whether that would be the case going forward, but a New York Times investigation last May found that about 25% of calls were fielded by humans and that a human had to intervene 15% of the time.
In our own subsequent testing, the bulk of which we conducted in March, we found that Duplex handled a range of scenarios without much human hand-holding. We had Duplex call a restaurant five times, and only once a human operator had to follow up to clarify details about a reservation. Moreover, Duplex consistently pronounced the reservation holder’s name and number correctly, and when given a choice in seating by the host — a booth, a high top, or a table in the dining room — it deftly alternated between the three over the course of the calls.
Still, Google appears to be hedging its bets with Assistant on the Web, a relatively new service that uses Duplex technology to handle things like car rentals and movie ticket bookings on the mobile web. Assistant on the Web launched in general availability in November 2019, starting with movie ticket purchasing — Google partnered with over 70 cinema chains and ticket sellers in the U.S. and U.K., including AMC, Fandango, MJR Theaters, Movietickets.com, and Odeon.
With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, rollouts and development of Assistant on the Web and Duplex are likely to slow as governments mandate that non-essential businesses shut their doors.
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