By Aaron Pressman and Adam Lashinsky
June 28, 2018

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After a mind-blowing demo last month, Google lifted the curtain a little more and let a few reporters see its Duplex AI app in action this week. The company bought out the THEP Thai Restaurant on Second Avenue in New York City and Oren’s Hummus Shop in Mountain View, Calif., for a day and had the reporters play at taking reservations from Duplex. Nothing too complicated—the computer didn’t try to order the lemongrass pork chop and a couple of crispy spring rolls to go. Just a table for four at 9 p.m. next Thursday and so on.

Most of the time, Duplex did well and its signature umm’s and ahhh’s sounded natural. “Duplex’s voice is absolutely stunning over the phone,” Ars Technica reporter Ron Amadeo, one of the invitees, reported. “It sounds real most of the time, nailing most of the prosodic features of human speech during normal talking.” (And, yeah, I had to look up “prosodic,” too.)

Sometimes the reporters were able to confuse Duplex with queries it wasn’t trained to handle. After Wired reporter Lauren Goode asked if the diners had any allergies or needed a high chair, the AI app passed the call to a human operator at Google.

But the deeper look at how Duplex works also revealed just how difficult it is to build a multi-functioning chatbot in the first place. Google has aced transcribing human speech for its AI to parse, and creating a human-sounding robot voice to respond. But the decision tree of what to say when is the complicated part. Company execs explained that Duplex isn’t going to be an all-purpose assistant, but rather an app trained for a few specific tasks like making restaurant and hair salon reservations. “On one hand, a lot can happen in a restaurant reservation conversation, but on the other hand not that many things,” Google vice president of engineering Scott Huffman explained at the New York test day. (Sounds a lot like the conversation trees that controlled the robot hosts on Westworld.) And Google’s not giving a date yet when even that narrow service will be broadly available to public users.

Guess we can’t hand out the award for passing the Turing Test quite yet.

Aaron Pressman


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