Google Duplex: Release Date, Availability, Features for the Voice Assistant
Google Duplex, the company’s next-generation voice assistant is expanding its horizons. On Wednesday, Pixel smartphone owners in 43 U.S. states were able to make restaurant reservations using the Google Assistant for the first time.
The update will ship to Android users in this first batch of states “over the next few weeks,” according to Scott Huffman, Google’s vice president of Engineering, writing in a corporate blog post. It’s the first step in Google’s master plan to make awkward phone calls and language barriers a thing of the past. In its current iteration, Duplex’s A.I.-powered reservation tool allows Google Assistant to call restaurants and book tables using an extremely human-sounding voice on your behalf.
The feature was first debuted during last year’s Google I/O developers’ conference in May and was quietly rolled out to Pixel users in Atlanta, New York City, Phoenix, and San Francisco on November 2018. After a few months of field testing, Google seems ready to introduce its Duplex A.I. to a much bigger audience — but there’s still much to be done, if you look at Google’s roadmap for the product.
As it stands, Duplex is about half way toward the vision outlined by CEO Sundar Pichai at I/O back in May. Some states may not be so welcoming to our robot-powered assistants: A Google spokesperson told The Verge that local laws might keep it from ever being adopted in the seven states that were excluded from its initial release because there are laws against recording without consent.
Google Duplex: Eligible States
Duplex is now available across a majority of the U.S.. The seven exceptions are Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Indiana, Texas, and Nebraska. The map below highlights all of the states it’ll soon be widely available in.
Why Is Google Duplex So Controversial?
Part of the problem is that Duplex records its conversations, which can run afoul of some state wiretapping laws. To ensure it’s in compliance with the law, the first thing Duplex does when it calls a restaurant is ask the recipient’s permission to record the conversation. This appears to be the issue in Texas, for example, where a state wiretapping law makes it a crime to record a call without the consent of one party in the conversation.
While Duplex will always asks permission to record, there are lots of scenarios — from bugs to human error — that could wind up landing Google in hot water if a user believes they were recorded without giving their consent first.
How to Use Duplex to Make a Reservation
Duplex is already a lean, mean, reservation-making machine for people who live where it’s available. Inverse has had a few chances to test out both sides of Duplex, both at a formal press demo and in the field.
"If it didn’t declare itself a robot, it would probably fool a lot of people"
From the restaurant’s perspective, Duplex talks almost indistinguishably from a human. The A.I. developed voice tics, like the “uhhs” and “umms” that pepper human speech and can even politely duck out of a conversation if it senses the receiver is actively trying to mess with it. If it didn’t declare itself a robot, it would probably fool a lot of people into thinking they’re taking to a very polite human.
The user, on the other hand, simply needs to ask to book a reservation and the Google Assistant will ask where they want to dine, how many people will be joining them, and at what time. It’ll then report back with a push notification if it was successful. Here’s a video of the process:
One hitch? Duplex will only go out of its way to call a restaurant if there are no other options that are easier, for example, by using the restaurant’s booking app. If a location supports OpenTable, for example, your Google Assistant will simply refer you there if you try to make a booking.
Google Duplex: Future Features
When Pichai first demoed Duplex at I/O, in addition to booking a reservation he also showed off its ability to book salon appointments. We’ve been unable to replicate this feature, and Google did not immediately respond to a request for a timeline about when it might be ready. In the longer term, though, Google has much bigger aspirations for its voice assistant than booking appointments.
In particular, Google seems to envision Duplex as the translator-slash-virtual guide of the future, allowing users to travel to other parts of the world where they don’t speak the language. Google’s Vice President of Product and Design, Nick Fox, told Inverse that Duplex’s translation abilities could be applied into commercial and enterprise settings, making it easier for businesses to cross the language barrier.
“There’s the opportunity to [give people] the ability to call a business in a country where [they] don’t speak the language,” he said. “I’d be able to speak to the assistant in a language that I speak and then it could speak to the business in a language that makes sense to them. That’s a really interesting way this system can be used to break language barriers.”
While Duplex may not be shipping with all of the features promised at I/O, an A.I. capable of making phone calls on your behalf is still incredibly novel: Neither Alexa nor Siri has indicated that they have anything similar in their own product pipelines (the Echo can make phone calls, but you’ll still have to talk yourself, unfortunately.) For anyone eager to get a sense of what future voice assistants might be capable of, Duplex remains in a class of its own.