Google’s Duplex is Evolving. But Can It Meet Your Needs?

Google wants to expand its Duplex A.I. platform to the web.

Duplex generates a remarkably human-sounding voice that can engage in conversations with real-life people, provided the exchange sticks to a narrow range of topics. When the platform made its initial debut last summer, Google framed it as a way for users to book restaurant reservations and other appointments.

Soon after that, rumors emerged that Google planned to adapt Duplex’s underlying technology for automated call centers and help desks. Although the company shot down that rumor(“We’re currently focused on consumer use cases,” it wrote in a statement), there was no question that Duplex would evolve in some way over the coming years.

That evolution (more of an iteration, actually) has arrived. As announced at Google’s massive I/O conference this week, Duplex will now handle online reservations for rental cars and movie tickets—by clicking through options on websites, not talking to a customer-service rep on a phone. In theory, the software will prove smart enough to move through the websites’ various option screens without human help, unless it needs to prompt the user for specific information (such as whether they’ll need a baby seat for the car).

In order for this to work, Duplex will need to heavily leverage the user’s data from other services, such as Gmail. For instance, if Gmail doesn’t have the receipts that confirm your itinerary, Duplex won’t be able to book dates for a rental. For that reason alone, Duplex is an incentive (or a Trojan Horse, if you’re not a fan of Google’s use of individual data) to use Google services in as many ways as possible.

Duplex’s shift to website interactions, as opposed to phone calls, might also represent a tacit admission on Google’s part that A.I. isn’t quite ready to deal with the nuances and “drift” of human conversations. Sure, such systems can work fine when the human answering the phone behaves in predictable ways; but as anyone who’s ever called for 2 A.M. takeout from that loud, bustling place down the street can tell you, making a reservation or placing any kind of order (especially a complex one) can quickly drift into odd tangents.

For example, picture Google Duplex trying to deal with a restaurant staffer who answers the phone with a grunt, or whose voice is drowned out by clanging and banging from the kitchen, or music. The possibilities for unexpected behavior are endless, even with an activity as supposedly controlled as asking someone for an available table at a certain time and date. (To be fair, Google Duplex could hand calls off to a human operator, but it’s certain that the company wants to evolve past the point of using humans to save the interaction.)

If Google hopes to eventually expand its A.I. and voice-recognition capabilities to customer service (despite its assertions to the contrary), the challenges will only multiply. Customers reach out to companies with a variety of issues, and they’re often enraged by the time they pick up the phone. Although Google has a massive A.I. research division, in addition to a limitless budget, it still might take years for Duplex and similar platforms to become sophisticated enough to truly talk to humans in a human-like way. That’s actually good news for help-desk assistants and customer-service reps who fear that automation will swallow up their jobs.