At Google I/O 2018, CEO Sundar Pichai unveiled a demo of Google Assistant that was both impressive and mildly creepy. The so-called “Google Duplex” system is capable of calling a business and making an appointment for its “client” (that’s you). While the feature is still in testing, Google has reportedly been fielding offers from businesses that want to put Duplex to work in call centers. The next customer service rep you speak to could be a machine. Welcome to your dystopian nightmare.
Duplex is the culmination of all Google’s AI and machine learning prowess. It uses the Assistant platform to process and respond to human beings. The Duplex version of Assistant even sounds a little more human. Google added in mannerisms like mid-sentence pauses and the word “umm.” The demo went suspiciously well, and Duplex didn’t even identify itself as a machine. In a more recent demo, Google showed how Assistant would introduce itself so as not to conduct a makeshift Turing Test on every call, as shown below. Despite fears that Google might have faked its demo, subsequent evaluations in-person have demonstrated that the technology exists.
Google says Duplex is intended as a consumer service that you will be able to use to call businesses. A public (but small) test will begin this month with several companies and a limited number of consumers. Later, Google hopes to use Duplex to do things like call stores to get holiday hours and let you make appointments with anyone. Businesses have reportedly expressed interest in turning that relationship on its head. They want to equip call centers with Duplex to triage customer calls.
The Information claims that at least one major call center operator has approached Google to talk about using Duplex. Google is only working on consumer applications so far, but it hasn’t exactly said “no” to businesses.
Presumably, Duplex in a call center would still identify itself as a machine. This would not be an entirely new concept for call centers, either. You probably have to deal with a ridiculously stupid AI routing system on a regular basis. They don’t even have to tell you they’re machines because it’s painfully obvious. Duplex might be good enough that you could be fooled, at least sometimes.
Call centers are reportedly interested in Duplex as a way to further reduce the number of human employees they need to keep around. A single human could be on-hand to take over for multiple instances of Duplex when the AI signals that it can’t figure out what a caller is after. If this happens, it’s probably still a few years in the future. Google still has to get Duplex ready for the general public.
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