Is Google Aiming Duplex at Help Desk and Customer Service Jobs?

So far, Google has framed its latest A.I. assistant, Duplex, as a way for users to make restaurant reservations and other appointments. But if the latest rumors from The Information have basis in fact, the search-engine giant has a much bigger goal for Duplex: automating call centers and help desks.

“Some big companies are in the very early stages of testing Google’s technology for use in other applications, such as call centers, where it might be able to replace some of the work currently done by humans, according to a person familiar with the plans,” the publication reported.

Google recently released a video showing how the current iteration of Duplex can call a restaurant and, in a remarkably human-sounding voice, ask for a reservation on a particular date and time. While the software can handle a basic conversation, it will transfer the call to a human operator if things get too confusing or complicated. (Gizmodoclaims it was able to stump Duplex by asking it to make a reservation at an impossible time.)

Effectively automating customer-service calls would take quite a bit more work on Google’s part, considering that people generally call a help line with a multitude of requests and issues; things can get complex very quickly. Google itself refused the claims in The Information, telling Gizmodothat it isn’t testing Duplex with any enterprise clients. “We’re currently focused on consumer use cases for the Duplex technology where we can help people get things done, rather than applying it to potential enterprise use cases,” the company added.

The possibility of Duplex taking over the help desk is reminiscent of the tech industry’s brief obsession with text bots. A few years ago, Facebook and other tech giants pushed simple, automated bots as the solution to companies’ customer-service needs: in theory, a customer could text with a bot that would answer the bulk of their questions, with human customer-service representatives only stepping in for the thornier queries. On paper, the idea was a great way to save resources and time; but in testing, bots could only deliver mediocre performance.

Speaking to an audience at TechCrunch Disrupt in December 2016, Facebook Messenger head David Marcus admitted that bots hadn’t yet proven “good enough to basically replace traditional app interfaces and experiences.” (He also suggested that bots had become “really overhyped, very, very quickly.”)

And that’s the challenge facing voice-activated assistants like Duplex: in a customer-service context, things get too complicated, too quickly for software to handle. Google has a massive A.I. research division, as well as an endless supply of money, but it still might take years before enterprises will accept that Duplex is sophisticated enough to handle their needs. In the meantime, help-desk assistants and customer-service reps can probably rest easy—your jobs are likely safe from Duplex for the time being.

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