Google today offered an update on the status of Duplex, its A.I. technology that uses natural conversations to get things done — like making restaurant reservations, booking appointments, or updating a Google Business listing, for example. When the pandemic began, Google expanded its use of Duplex for business updates to eight countries, and has since made over 3 million updates to business listings — including pharmacies, restaurants and grocery stores.
These updates have been seen over 20 billion times across Maps and Search, the company says.
The A.I. technology, first introduced at the Google I/O developer conference in 2018, is able to place calls to businesses and interact with the people who answer the phone. In the case of reservations or appointment setting, it can request dates and times, respond to questions, and even make sounds to make the A.I. seem more like a person. For instance, it can insert subtle vocal breaks, like “mm-hm” and “um,” into its conversations.
Since launching, Duplex in Google Assistant has completed over a million bookings, Google announced today.
The company also noted it began to use Duplex to automatically update business information on Google Maps and Search in the U.S. last year, saving business owners from having to manually update details like store hours, or whether they offer takeout, among other things.
Last year, Google also brought Duplex to the web in the U.S., to help users book things like movie tickets and rental cars. Today, Google says it will begin piloting the same experience with other things, like shopping and ordering food for a faster checkout experience.
Just a few weeks ago, Google also introduced another Duplex-powered feature, “Hold for Me,” which lets you use Google Assistant to wait on hold on your phone call, then alert you when someone joins the line.
Thanks to advances in neural speech recognition and synthesis, and in Google’s own new language understanding models, the company says today that 99% of Duplex calls are entirely automated.
The Duplex update was one of several announcements Google made today at its Search On 2020 event, where it introduced a number of search improvements, including the ability to search for songs by humming, better guess at misspellings, point users to the correct part of a page to answer their question, tag key moments in videos, and more.
Google’s strategy around its messaging apps is nothing if not messy right now (hello Hangouts, Meet, Chat, Duo and Co.), but it looks like things will get a bit easier come next year. We already knew that Hangouts’ time was coming to an end and as Google announced today, the company will allow all current Hangouts users to migrate to Chat — which was originally meant to only be its Slack-like messaging service for business users — in the first half of 2021.
One interesting wrinkle here: Chat will now also become free to use for consumers. Currently, you have to be a paying G Suite/Workspace user to access the service (though somehow it’s enabled on my free personal account).
While Chat isn’t an exact 1-to-1 replacement of Hangouts, it actually offers a bunch of additional features for group chats and collaboration around files and tasks, as well as new security tools. Chat, together with Rooms and Meet, will also be integrated deeply into the Gmail app as part of Google’s Workspace migration.
Google says it will automatically migrate all Hangouts conversations, contacts and history to Chat, but it’s not providing details about this yet. Final timing, Google says, may still shift. It’s not clear, though, when Google will force everyone to migrate and shut down the Hangouts servers for good.
There are a few more details here: if you use Hangouts with Google Fi, Hangouts support will go away ‘early next year.’ Traditionally, Fi users were able to make calls and manage their text messages from Hangouts. That experience will migrate to Google’s Messages app.
If you’re a Google Voice user, there’s a similar transition happening. For voice calls and text messages, Hangouts users will now be directed to the Voice app and early next year, your Voice support will be removed from Hangouts.
And for all users in the U.S. and Europe, the ability to call phones from Hangouts will disappear at the beginning of next year — and group video calls in Hangouts will transition to Meet in November.
Yeah — that all sounds complicated, but it’s a problem of Google’s own making. A few years ago, the idea was to move Hangouts users to its Allo and Duo apps and business users to Chat and Meet (or whatever they were called back then). Allo flopped (and few people use Duo), leaving Google with the unenviable task of keeping the aging Hangouts platform around for the foreseeable future and making the overall transition harder and more complicated, to the point where I’m not sure that consumers really understand what’s happening.