Over the past few years, Google's virtual assistant has emerged as the market leader for everything from driving directions to DJ'ing music to settling trivia arguments in a matter of seconds. This summer, the company debuted an impressively advanced version called Duplex, which can mimic the conversational patterns of us meatbags with unsettling precision.
Over the Thanksgiving break, VentureBeat reports that Google quietly expanded its slow rollout from a "set of trusted users" to a "small group" of Pixel phone owners, by way of the Google Assistant app for Android. This test is still limited to a handful of large population centers such as New York, San Francisco, and Atlanta.
The Duplex test isn't officially being made accessible to the media yet, but a Pixel phone in possession of VentureBeat happened to get included in the expanded pool of testers. As a result, it's able to give the world a deep-dive into how Duplex currently operates.
How do you know when Duplex is on the other end of the line?
For now, Duplex is optimized to act as a Pixel user's reservation maker, for things like a hotel room or a table at a restaurant. But it currently uses a combination of human and AI operators, so it identifies itself differently according to who is acting as "Duplex." When it's a person, they begin the conversation by saying, "I'm calling from Google, so the call may be recorded." If it's the AI version of Duplex, it announces that it's an AI.
The recording warning is necessary when the human Duplex operator is calling from or conducting business in a state that adheres to "two-party" laws, wherein the person being called must be notified that the conversation may be getting recorded. California, where Google is headquartered, is such a state.
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And on September 28, California passed a state Senate bill where chat agent AIs would be required by law to disclose that they are not real people. This new law doesn't explicitly require this notice in the context of a phone call, but there's definitely enough gray area with Duplex to make transparency a good idea.
The law doesn't take effect until July 1, 2019, but with the Golden State being home to nearly 40 million people, it's arguably smart to get out in front of the upcoming requirement. California has a habit of setting the national tone for air pollution standards and internet privacy rights, so its chatbot law is likely to spread to other states and possibly the US Congress.
According to IDC, Google sold a little under 4 million Pixel phones for all of 2017, compared to Samsung moving 74.1 million Android handsets just in Q4. So despite Google's enormous reach when it comes to things like search, driving directions, and YouTube, its brand success doesn't appear to have spread to physical devices as strongly. Maybe Duplex will be what it takes to establish a firm beachhead for the company's home-grown gadgets.
- VentureBeat reports that the testing of Google's Duplex chat agent has expanded to the Google Assistant app, though the number of testers remains modest.
- In California, chatbots will be required to disclose that they're not real people, starting July 1, 2019.
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