Google Duplex AI Still Needs a Lot of Help From Humans

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We met Google Duplex at the I/O conference in 2018 when Google showed off a suspiciously realistic AI that could call and make appointments for you. The service has now rolled out to users of Google Assistant in most US states, but you may not be getting the full AI experience. According to a new report, many of those calls are being placed by flesh and blood humans in Google call centers.

The New York Times tested Duplex by asking it to place reservations and then staking out the restaurants to find out how it went. If you’re in a supported region, you can have Google book you a table by telling the Assistant on your phone where you want to go and when. Assistant reports back a little while later with the results of the call, allowing you to confirm that the reservation is correct. There’s no indication here whether the call involved a human. According to the NYT, there’s a good chance it did.

Currently, about 15 percent of all Duplex calls require a person to step in and work out the details when the AI gets confused. A quarter of calls are placed by a human without any attempt to use the AI. It can be difficult for the workers at restaurants to know the difference because the script for human callers is very similar to what the machine says. Duplex also inserts “umms” and other human idiosyncracies to seem more realistic.

Google says the intention is to make Duplex a fully machine-powered system. However, it needs a lot of data to train the neural networks that run it. In the same way you need plenty of photos to train an image recognition AI like the one built into Google Photos, you need many examples of phone calls to make Duplex work reliably. And it already can do some impressive things. In the New York Times test, one worker asked the AI if there would be any kids. That’s the sort of thing you’d expect to trip up a computer, but Duplex said it was calling for a client, so it doesn’t know.

Currently, Google doesn’t have any plans to phase out the human helpers. That might happen naturally as Duplex gets smarter, and the end results are the same for users who use Assistant to make reservations. Still, it’s not quite the future we were promised.

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