What Is Google Duplex? The Assistant Is Pretty Much Here and It's Amazing

Step aside, Alexa and Siri.

The Google I/O conference in May teased Google Duplex, a leveled-up version of the company’s home assistant. The demo for this virtual secretary dropped jaws as it autonomously booked a salon appointment with an indistinguishably human voice. Yet CEO Sundar Pichai disappointed the crowd when he said it was not ready for release.

Since then, Duplex has already come a pretty long way, and is now able to pull off four out of five test calls completely automatically. During a live demo on Monday attended by Inverse, users were able to test Duplex by pretending to be restaurant receptionists as the voice assistant called to book a reservation.

In our demo, Duplex politely asked me to seat a party of four at a trendy Thai restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan at 7 p.m. When I explained regretfully that we were all booked, it replied with “Uhh, is there anything open between 8 p.m. or 9 p.m.?”

Teaching Duplex to master vocal tics like “uhhs” is one of the final hurdles, Google’s Vice President of Engineering Scott Huffman said in a Monday interview. Otherwise, it’s pretty much ready to launch. The company declined to offer a specific launch date, but said it would be ramping up Duplex’s availability over the next few months.

“We can launch [Duplex] where it’s at right now but that’s not what we’re waiting for,” Huffman said at a recent New York press event. “It’s about what’s the right way for it to introduce itself, determining the right kind of control for businesses, making sure the experience is right for users, and businesses are happy with the outcome. We’re taking it slowly.”

At the event, Huffman elaborated that Google will begin publicly testing the system with a select number of businesses in the United States. The first trial will only help testers inquire about the opening hours of stores, but over the next few months, the plan is to expand Duplex’s capabilities to booking restaurant reservations and hair salon appointments.

The most impressive feature? Even when faced with questions that it is unable to answer, Duplex is pretty good at courteously bowing out of a conversation by saying it would call back later. A Google spokesperson cited one example where a tester asked the system for the height of the person it was calling for, at which point Duplex managed to talk its way out of the odd conversation.

Once Google figures out how to make Duplex a master at greetings and sticky situations, the final question Duplex’s developers will have to work out is transparency: how are people to know when they’re speaking with A.I.? Do they need to know?

Once that happens, however, ubiquitous virtual assistants seem somewhat inevitable. Sorry, Siri and Alexa, you don’t have much on this.

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