Google Prepping Its Duplex Bot For A Summer Rollout

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Google prepping its Duplex bot for a summer rollout

Tech giant Google introduces a new concept in May. When Google first introduced its phone-calling digital concierge Duplex in May, some thought it sounded too human. Others worried that it would secretly record calls with people.

The search giant says it has been working to address these concerns.

As for Duplex’s tendency to use speech fillers like “ums” and “ahs,” Google notes that this technique improved the assistant’s ability to book appointments by interacting more naturally with humans on the other end of the line. Google prepping its Duplex bot for a summer rollout.

For starters, Google says that the bot will identify itself as an automated assistant upfront and will disclose that it’s recording calls. Human operators will be standing by as backup should a call go off the rails.

The company is taking great pains to assure that Duplex conforms to a set of principles around artificial intelligence it released earlier this month. Among them— only develop tools that are socially beneficial and that incorporate privacy by design.

“We’re not trying to trick people,” Scott Huffman, Google’s vice president of engineering for the Google Assistant, said. To demonstrate the point, he played a recording of an early Duplex prototype in which a computerized, British-accented male voice tried to book a restaurant reservation for four, and filled an awkward silence with an off-kilter “Hello.”

“The system didn’t sound very good,” Mr. Huffman said. “People would hang up on it… The team began to iterate on, ‘How do we make it sound more natural?’ ”

Now, Duplex can successfully book hair appointments, make restaurant reservations or check holiday business hours the only tasks it is programmed to complete four out of five times without intervention by humans.

In a test of Duplex, an Associated Press reporter acted as a restaurant employee and objected to the call being recorded. Google didn’t allow audio or video recording of the demo to be shared, but the transcript went like this:

Duplex: “Hi, I’d like to make a reservation. I’m Google’s automated booking service, so I’ll record the call. Um, can I book a table for Saturday, the 30th?”

AP: “Uh, ok, but what if I don’t want the call to be recorded?”

Duplex: “Ok, uh we’ll call you back on an unrecorded line.”

A human operator called back within minutes, completed the booking and said the restaurant would be opted out of receiving Duplex calls in the future.

John Havens, executive director for the IEEE’s Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems, says Duplex’s upfront disclosure leaves him “deeply encouraged.”

Nick Fox, Google vice president of product and design for the assistant, said it’s too early and Google is still learning how its bot will react with humans in the real world.

“We have seen businesses hang up,” he said. “Is it comfortable to talk to, is it strange to talk to? That’s what the purpose of this next phase is, to really understand what’s working for them, what’s not, iterate and go from there.”

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