Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Basic Questions About Google Duplex

Dan Primack of Axios found Google’s demo of Duplex a little fishy:

When you call a business, the person picking up the phone almost always identifies the business itself (and sometimes gives their own name as well). But that didn’t happen when the Google assistant called these “real” businesses:

  • When the hair salon picks up, a woman says: “Hello, how can I help you?”

  • When the restaurant picks up, a woman says: “Hi, may I help you?”

Axios called over two dozen hair salons and restaurants — including some in Google’s hometown of Mountain View — and every one immediately gave the business name.

There also does not seem to be ambient noise in either recording, such as hair dryers or plates clattering. We heard that in most of the businesses we called, but not in all.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai insisted three times that these calls were real, but these discrepancies should be answered. If these calls were edited, even just to remove the business name to limit publicity, Google hasn’t said. Very strange.

Finally, neither the hair salon nor the restaurant ask for the customer’s phone number or any other contact information.

Primack also included this as a reason why the calls seemed suspicious, but I disagree. The hair salon asked for the customer name; I don’t usually book my haircuts, but when I do, they don’t ask for contact information. The restaurant didn’t need to ask for contact information because the staff member answering the phone said that no reservations would be accepted for Duplex’s party size.

Jack Wellborn on Twitter:

Regardless of whether the Duplex demo was real or not, I keep wondering why Google didn’t target it to businesses first. People are used to talking to robots when calling businesses and some might even prefer it.

As a demo, it’s pretty cool, though somewhat less compelling to me as a recording rather than a live preview. But as an actual consumer service offering, I’m not sure I get it in its current guise. While Pichai said that 60% of American businesses don’t have an online booking system, that number has been dropping and, though I doubt it will hit zero, their pitch is to a temporary and shrinking market.

But as a business product, like Wellborn describes, it makes more sense to me. Why not have a robot handle reservations? As Sarah Jeong said on Twitter, this is only a product “because we treat service industry people like robots” anyway, unfortunately.

But that’s only if we feel like Duplex is limited to making bookings. Over time, it will of course become more capable. Like they do for the web, Google is already crawling the real world with things like Street View and AI-powered verification of business details. What’s next?