Data Sheet—Google’s Duplex AI Proves Its Powers and Limitations

June 28, 2018, 1:24 PM UTC

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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.


Poor old granddad. Another tech company is trying to parse the moral crisis at the border. After employees at Salesforce complained about the company's work for the Customs and Border Protection service, CEO Marc Benioff defended the contract. The company's software isn't used to separate children from their parents, he wrote in an email to employees, adding “I’m opposed to separating children from their families at the border. It is immoral." At Google, the company is trying to tamp down the rhetoric on its internal bulletin board system known as Memegen, the Wall Street Journal reports. "Do your part to keep Google a safe, productive, and inclusive environment for everyone," the new guidelines say, in part.

They'll steal your heart away. With subscriptions a rapidly growing source of revenue at Apple, the company is said to be "considering" creating a single offering for one price that would include access to original video programming, music streaming, and magazine articles, The Information reported. That would follow Amazon's model of including a bevy of services and features under its Prime program, versus duplicating the separate offerings of rivals like Spotify, Netflix, and Dropbox. Apple also settled its seven year patent battle with Samsung over allegedly copying key iPhone features. Terms weren't disclosed. "If I had to characterize it, it didn’t really accomplish anything,” Santa Clara University law professor Brian Love told the New York Times.

They come on strong and it ain't too long. The International Olympic Committee and the Global Association of International Sports Federations (which includes both Olympic and non-Olympic sports) announced an eSports forum on July 21 that could eventually lead to popular video gaming leagues participating in the quadrennial event. The meeting will be "to begin a discussion, listen and learn from each other, and understand the potential opportunities for collaboration," IOC sports director Kit McConnell said.

There's nothing I can say. After paying about $108 billion including assumed debt to buy Time Warner, AT&T is under the gun to reduce its leverage. So it's probably not surprising that the giant carrier quietly more than doubled one of its vague fees added to the bottom of wireless customers' bills. Raising the monthly "administrative fee" to $1.99 from 76 cents could raise almost $1 billion, an analyst said.

Makes you wonder where you are. Freaking out the pharmacy industry once again, Amazon on Thursday said it acquired online prescription filler PillPack for an undisclosed sum. Shares of CVS, Walgreens Boots, and Rite Aid fell as much as 10% in premarket trading.

They'll trap you, then they use you. While there's been a ton of focus on the collection of personal data by Internet companies like Google and Facebook, the murky industry of data brokers sails on despite the risks. A researcher on Wednesday announced that Florida-based data broker Exactis had exposed 340 million records on the Internet of consumers and businesses, including phone numbers, home addresses, email addresses, and other highly personal characteristics. Still worried about Facebook? The social network says it's having trouble tracking down all the data it shared with app developers because many are no longer in business.

(Non-Gen X headline reference explainer video)


A staple of recent Congressional hearings looking into tech companies has been Republican complaints of anti-right bias on social media. Twitter and Facebook have been trying to quietly defuse the tension behind the scenes by meeting with Republican leaders, Washington Post reporter Tony Romm reports. One dinner—at Cafe Milano in D.C.'s Georgetown neighborhood, hosted by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey—didn't go so well, Romm writes:

Among those attending the June 19 dinner were Mercedes Schlapp, a top communications adviser for President Trump; Grover Norquist, the leader of Americans for Tax Reform; television host Greta Van Susteren, and Guy Benson, a Fox News commentator, according to the people in the room.

Dorsey hoped to use the dinner as a way to build “trust” among conservatives who have long chastised the company, three of the people said. He defended Twitter against accusations that it targeted right-leaning users unfairly but still admitted that the company has room for improvement, according to the attendees.

In response, the Twitter executive heard an earful from conservatives gathered at the table, who scoffed at the fact that Dorsey runs a platform that’s supposed to be neutral even though he’s tweeted about issues like immigration, gay rights and national politics. They also told Dorsey that the tech industry’s efforts to improve diversity — after years of criticism for maintaining a largely white, male workforce — should focus on hiring engineers with more diverse political viewpoints as well, according to those who dined with him in D.C.


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Tired of paying to replace a cracked glass screen on your phone yet again after you dropped it on a concrete sidewalk? German engineering student Philip Frenzel may have the perfect product for you. It's being called the "mobile phone airbag," though it's not really a bag and it doesn't need any air. Check out this video and see the gizmo in action.

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman. Find past issues, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters.

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