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Google Duplex being tested in call centers as ethical concerns reportedly slow development [Update]

Update: Google has reached out to clarify that Duplex is currently only focussed on consumer applications and not being tested by enterprise customers. The full statement is below:

The company this afternoon denied The Information’s report on “very early stage” testing of Duplex for call centers. Google is “currently focused on consumer use cases” and categorically notes that it’s not “testing Duplex with any enterprise clients.”

We’re currently focused on consumer use cases for the Duplex technology and we aren’t testing Duplex with any enterprise clients. As we shared last week, Duplex is designed to operate in very specific use cases, and currently we’re focused on testing with restaurant reservations, hair salon booking, and holiday hours with a limited set of trusted testers. It’s important that we get the experience right and we’re taking a slow and measured approach as we incorporate learnings and feedback from our tests.

Google emphasized that it is “taking a slow and measured approach” with Duplex — likely due to the initial backlash —  and reiterated the three limited domains that the company has so far announced.

Of course, this does not rule out a wider availability for Duplex in the future, especially as Amazon currently offers Alexa for Business, while Google in the past has made other technologies available to Cloud customers.

The original report is below:

Many of Google’s technological advancements have both consumer and enterprise applications. According to a report today, this is the case for Google Duplex, with companies already testing it for possible use in call centers.

A report from The Information reveals that third-parties are in the “very early stages of testing Google’s technology for use in other applications.” This suggests that in addition to booking appointments via Assistant and calling businesses for holiday hours, Google sees Duplex as a Cloud service that other companies could pay to use.

The primary use case mentioned in today’s report is call centers, specifically the booming cloud-based market where Duplex’s uncanny naturalness might serve as an advantage. Another key distinction is how Duplex has more advanced conversational capabilities compared to competitors.

Amazon offers a similar service, opening Alexa’s underlying technology to enterprise customers last year. But Google — with all of its cloud offerings — is hedging on the advantage provided by its AI smarts. In this example, the company’s lead in natural language processing allows it to understand a wider range of user responses for a longer period before handing off to a human.

Duplex could be used to handle “simple and repetitive customer calls while humans step in when the conversations get more complicated,” according to the report.

There is precedent for Google making Duplex available to third-parties. Earlier this year, Google Cloud Speech-to-Text received a major overhaul focused on optimizing phone call transcription uses. The API can be used to transcribe a customer’s call and distinguish 2-4 speakers, while taking into account background noise, static, and hold music. This service offered by Google Cloud uses the core speech recognition technology used by Search and Assistant.

According to The Information, one “large insurance company” is already testing, but it’s still in “early stages” and months from going live. In fact, ethical concerns have apparently slowed down work on the product. Just last week, Google better detailed Duplex’s disclosure mechanism and the calling experience that businesses will hear.

Despite this, many are still uncomfortable with how natural Duplex sounds thanks to the use of pauses, “uh,” and “umm” in a conversation. The primary critique is that even in a call center setting customers would be unaware they are talking to a machine and feel subsequently deceived.

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Avatar for Abner Li Abner Li

Editor-in-chief. Interested in the minutiae of Google and Alphabet. Tips/talk: