The computers are coming for us: Today, in a gasp-inducing presentation at its I/O conference 2018, Google showed off a new AI feature that can call a restaurant and speak to a human reservationist, sounding freakishly, 100 percent human.
In the presentation, prompted by a user’s request for a reservation at a specific time for a specific number of people, the AI calls a restaurant. The virtual assistant speaks in a fairly natural human voice, with normal cadence, and responds to prompts such as, “Hold on,” or “Just a minute,” with filler words like “Mmhmm,” and “Uh.” There’s something deeply unsettling about it. See the jarring proof here, starting at the 2:50 mark:
Google describes it as “a new technology for conducting natural conversations to carry out ‘real world’ tasks over the phone... For such tasks, the system makes the conversational experience as natural as possible, allowing people to speak normally, like they would to another person, without having to adapt to a machine.”
The voice-based system sounds so real that it’s clear that the human on the other end of the line had no idea they were speaking to a robot. Called Google Duplex, this is a forthcoming new feature of Google Assistant that has been in the works for a long time, according to Google CEO Sundar Pichai. It’s set to be rolled out soon, perhaps later this year, and the technology company was careful to explain that its system can only carry out conversations like this in restricted environments. The company plans to use the technology for its own purposes, too: For example, calling a restaurant to confirm its hours of operation in order to update the information listed on Google Maps.
So far, Google’s made no mention of a complementary system in which a restaurant can retain a virtual reservationist to answer calls from virtual assistants. Then again, there’s always OpenTable.