We tested Google's robot booking service Duplex, and it fooled us into believing it was human
- We were allowed to play around with Duplex, the technology that books restaurant reservations or make appointments with a hair salon.
- Google demonstrated Duplex at I/O last month and stunned people when the system showed itself capable of listening and then responding in a human-sounding voice.
- Duplex is still in the testing phase, but Google executives say the system successfully accomplishes it's goal four out of every five calls.
- It certainly had us fooled.
Google Duplex, the technology that debuted at last month’s I/O conference and simultaneously tickled and frightened people by carrying on brief conversations with humans, pretty much works as advertised.
This week, members of the media were allowed to test Duplex for themselves. The technology is another of Google’s Assistants' digital valets, built to perform the relatively simple tasks of booking restaurant reservations or making haircut appointments.
Turns out the naysayers and skeptics were wrong. Duplex understands speech and converses with humans in much the same way that Google promised. Still, it's unclear if anyone is interested in turning over these chores to computer systems. If they are, the company is potentially sitting on a hit.
At I/O, Google CEO Sundar Pichai played a recording for the audience of Duplex successfully making a restaurant reservation in such a convincing way — sprinkling "ums" and "ahs" into its speech — that the human on the other end of the line had no idea they were speaking to an automated system.
Some in the I/O audience distrusted what they heard. They accused Google of editing the recording and rigging the demonstration to make Duplex appear more advanced. Others noted that Google had wowed I/O audiences before with whizbang tech — tech that never amounted to much.
Others more convinced by the technology feared that Duplex could conceivably dupe people into believing they were chatting with someone they knew, a potentially big problem.
How we got hands-on with Duplex
During the demo on Tuesday, reporters took turns playing the part of a receptionist or restaurant hostess. Duplex called to book a reservation and reporters asked questions such as "How can I help you?" and "For what day and time?" and "How many people in your party?"
The first thing to know is that Duplex identified itself straightaway as a digital application.
"Hi, I’m calling to make a reservation. I’m an automated booking service so I’ll record the call," Duplex said in a voice that sounded like it came from a twenty-something male. "Can I book a table for Thursday?"
That may not have solved the entire issue of preventing Duplex from being used to impersonate people but it’s not a bad start.
As for the rest of Duplex’s performance, the software smoothly responded to questions and quickly interpreted responses from reporters. The software wasn’t tripped up much by mispronounced words, stuttering or extended pauses. The demonstration was nearly perfect.
Duplex got into trouble once, when David Pierce of The Wall Street Journal, purposely threw it a curveball and repeated back erroneous dates for a reservation. Duplex reacted as it was programmed to do in such situations: By alerting one of Google’s human operators who got on the line and completed the booking.
In Duplex’s testing stage, Google has operators standing by to take over whenever a conversation goes off track, said Nick Fox, vice president of product design and Scott Huffman, vice president of engineering.
According to them, Duplex is successful four out of every five calls.
It’s hard to believe Google won’t have a higher failure rate, at least initially. Once people learn that they’re talking to software, there are bound to be many who will try to mess with this technology.
Google is prepared.
Managers have programmed Duplex to try and steer conversations to the designated task if the human on the line begins to stray off topic. If it fails to achieve this, the software will call on one of the human operators to take over.
Initially, users will use their phones and an app to key in dates, times, and other information needed to make a reservation or appointment. Then Duplex will take over and make the call. Once the reservation is booked, the system will notify the user. Google said the focus for the project was to "help people get things done."
As for when consumers might get their chance to play with Duplex, Google didn’t say exactly but managers hinted that it may be as soon as this summer.
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