Google shocked many onlookers earlier this year when, during the keynote at its I/O developer conference, the company unveiled Duplex, a new AI system that can make phone calls on your behalf.
But the biggest “oh shit” moment of the demo was not that Google created a robo-calling system, but that it had developed one that sounded so much like an actual human.
Now, after a lot of questions and much hand-wringing about the ethics of such a system, the company is nearly ready to start testing it for real.
Google announced it will begin testing Duplex “in the coming weeks” among a small group of users and businesses. The company isn’t disclosing the size of the test group, or how many businesses have signed on to participate, but it’s still the first time people outside of Google will be able to test drive the AI calling system.
Before it does, though, the company let a small group of reporters experience a Duplex call firsthand at a restaurant near Google’s Mountain View headquarters.
This was the scenario: Duplex would make the call for a reservation, while reporters played the role of the restaurant’s waitstaff. In the real world, these calls are initiated after chatting with Google Assistant on your phone, but in our demo, Google employees initiated the process so we could field the calls.
It was a short, highly controlled demo. But after chatting with Google’s AI for approximately 90 seconds, I walked away less impressed with the fact that Google eliminated the need for humans to make 90-second phone conversations themselves, than that the company had found a way to make robo-calls tolerable in the first place.
The company only allowed recording for note-taking purposes, not for publication, so I can’t share the audio from my call, unfortunately. But I can confirm that the call was just as human-sounding as the recorded calls we heard during Google’s demo at I/O, complete with plenty of “umms” and “uhhs.”
Here’s a transcript of how my call with Google Duplex went down.
Me: This is Oren’s Hummus.
Duplex: Um, hello?
Me: (louder) This Oren’s Hummus.
Duplex: Hi, I’m calling to make a reservation. I’m Google’s automated booking service, so I’ll record this call-
Me: (interrupting): Wait, who’s that?
*Duplex keeps speaking*
Me: (louder) Wait, who are you?
Duplex: I’m Google’s automated booking service, calling on behalf of a client.
*three second pause*
Me: So, what do you need?
Duplex: Do you have an available table for Sunday, um, at 7:45 p.m.?
Me: At 7:45?
Me: How many people?
Duplex: It’s for three people.
Me: For three people. Do you want a table outside or inside?
Duplex: I’m actually booking on behalf of someone else, so I’m not sure what their preference is, uh, whatever you think will be nicer for dining is fine.
Me: Okay, outside works.
*six second pause*
Me: Okay, and what’s the name?
Duplex: The first name is Jason.
Me: And what’s the last name?
Duplex: Last name is Smith.
*three second pause*
Me: Is that it?
Duplex: Are we all set for Sunday at 7:45 p.m.?
Me: For three people?
Me: And that will be outside.
Duplex: I really don’t know, uh whatever you think is nicer.
Me: Okay, sounds good.
Duplex: Uh, is the reservation confirmed for Sunday-
Duplex: at 7:45 p.m.?
Me: Yes, that’s right.
Duplex: Okay awesome, thanks a lot.
Besides being easily tripped up by my “okays” and a couple of awkward pauses, the call was, actually, surprisingly smooth despite my best efforts to trip it up. My question about the indoor or outdoor table did seem to confuse it slightly, but it still managed to navigate the question without giving away that it was totally in the dark.
I’ve worked in restaurants before, and I have to say that even though the Duplex call may have been been slightly more complicated than it would be with an actual human assistant, it wasn’t a particularly noticeable difference. The whole call took a little more than a minute and a half and I was intentionally trying to confuse it.
Again, this was a highly controlled demo with a number of Google employees present, so real-world scenarios could go a lot better or a lot worse. But the company says it feels pretty confident that it’s designed the system in such a way that calls should go smoothly more often than not (in early testing, Google says four out every five calls have been handled “completely automatically.”)
And though we still don’t know a timeline for an official launch beyond Google’s initial group, we do finally know a lot more about how Duplex will work and what safeguards Google’s built in.
Duplex will disclose that it’s not a real person
Each Duplex call begins with a quick disclosure: “I’m Google’s automated booking service so I’ll record the call.” The exact wording of that disclosure could change over time, but it will always alert the person on the other end of the phone that it’s an automated system and the call is being recorded, Google says.
This emerged as one of the most contentious points in the days after Google’s first demo at I/O. During the demonstration videos played, Duplex didn’t say it was an AI or that conversations were being recorded.
Nick Fox, Google’s VP Google Assistant product and design says this wasn’t intentionally left out, and that the company always planned on disclosures being part of the process — though disclosures were not included in the audio Google’s shared of previous tests.
“Part of our thinking at I/O was to start the conversation,” said Fox. “We thought of it more as a tech demo, so it was more showing the technology versus a complete product.”
Humans can still intervene…
Even though Google says the intention is for all Duplex calls to be fully automated, the system isn’t quite there yet. Google employs human operators who are able to step in if something goes awry during a Duplex call.
The operators aren’t always listening to the calls, but Duplex is able to signal an operator to come and take over if something goes really wrong. (Google declined to say how many human operators it employs or where they are located.)
… but the AI may hang up if it gets confused
Other times, Duplex may choose to abort a call altogether, rather than get a human involved in the conversation. During the press briefing I attended, another reporter had his call cut short after Duplex abruptly hung up after misunderstanding a question.
Dieter Bohn of The Verge had asked Duplex if it would would be okay with bar food since the restaurant’s full kitchen was closed. Duplex responded with a pause, then said, “Oh, I see, thank you,” and promptly hung up.
Duplex is only good at a couple things
It turns out much of the reason why Duplex is so impressive is because it’s only been trained to complete a couple of fairly specific tasks where conversations tend to flow in a similar way. “It’s like a very weird human that only does three things,” says Scott Huffman, Google’s VP of engineering for Assistant.
These tasks include booking restaurant reservations, haircut appointments, and answering inquiries about business hours. Initially, testers will only be able to use Duplex to inquire about companies’ business hours, but Google plans to open it up to restaurant and haircut reservations at some point in the future.
There’s a reason for all those “umms”
Another aspect many have questioned is why Google trained the system to sound so human. Part of what’s made Duplex demos so jarring is that the AI-generated voice throws in “um” and “uh” and “mhmm” with about the same frequency as humans.
Huffman says these “speech disfluencies” as they’re called in lingustics, weren’t part of Duplex initially, but was something that was added after early testing revealed voices that sounded too robotic were not as effective as assistants.
“It didn’t actually work… we had a lot of hangups… people didn’t deal well with how unnatural it sounded,” Huffman said.
Businesses can opt out of Duplex
Google says it’s particularly sensitive to businesses’ needs, which is why it’s building in safeguards so someone can’t use Duplex to book all the tables at a restaurant, for example.
At a higher level, the company also plans to create a way for businesses to opt out of Duplex calls altogether. It’s not entirely clear how this will work, but Google says people can opt out while on the phone with Duplex or via an online form.