Duplex to Allow Google Assistant to Hold Conversations

By Tracey Dowdy

If you’ve ever seen the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” you’re familiar with the plot line that HAL 9000, the ship’s computer, is sentient and interacts with the crew. His conversational tone is in contrast to the formal speech of the astronauts and makes it even more unsettling when he starts killing the crew before they can disconnect or “kill” him. The American Film Institute (AFI) ranked Hal as the 13th greatest movie villain of all time.

I don’t want to scare you, but Google brought us one step closer to that being a documentary, not fiction. Google’s new assistant, Duplex, is designed to rival Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana. Duplex sounds a lot – and I mean A LOT – like you’re talking to another person and not a computer generated response. The tone is conversational, using vocal tics like “Um,” “Mmmhmm,” and “Uh,” like we often do when we’re multitasking or stalling for time, even though like Siri, Alexa, and Cortana, it’s responses are computer generated.

During a demo at the recent I/O 2018, Google CEO Sundar Pichai played recordings of Duplex calling a hair salon to book an appointment and a restaurant to make dinner reservations for the following week. In both cases, the interaction was so natural and Duplex’s responses so intuitive that the party on the other end had no idea they weren’t speaking to another person.

Now before you start gathering your supplies for the robot uprising, Duplex is still in beta stage. Pichai and his team will roll out the tech to a hand-selected group this summer saying they want to “proceed with caution” because it’s such a new technology.

It’s all part of Google’s goal to make our interaction with their technology seamless: we’ll wake up and get the news and latest weather from our Google Assistant; we’ll leave for work and use our Nest camera to keep an eye on our pets and our home; we’ll use our phone translate the menu at a Chinese restaurant; and use the Nest thermostat app to kick the AC on during our commute home on the train.

Even without Duplex, your Google assistant already has several upgrades available, including a choice of six new voice options designed to give users a more personalized experience. You can also ask two questions at once and have both answered, like “What’s the date of the royal wedding and what channel is it on?” and instead of the mic cutting off immediately after you ask your question, it will stay hot for 8 seconds, so you don’t have to say “Hey Google” again. It can text your friends your ETA if you’re using Google Maps and will even allow you to set up a “custom routine,” which initiates preset actions when you shut off your alarm. No more scrolling through your CNN app or searching Spotify for your “Wake up” playlist; your Google Assistant will do it for you.

All this, of course, begs the question, How much privacy are you willing to surrender for the sake of convenience? Google knows we’re all wondering these days, especially in light of the privacy issues over at Facebook. “Our principles here have always been to give users control over that information,” says Nick Fox, vice president of product and design for Google Assistant and Search. “The last few weeks have underlined that this is incredibly important. But we’ve always known it’s important. It’s healthy for us to get that reinforcement.”

All assistant queries are treated like regular search queries, with all the same user settings. Users can delete their search history but should be aware it will likely affect the ads they see.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

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