Coronavirus: Google Duplex AI arrives in UK to invite about opening hours

A restaurant's closed sign is seen with a Google Assistant logo overImage copyright
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Image caption

Duplex lets the Google assistant call businesses and interact with staff

Google’s AI phone assistant Duplex is contacting businesses across the UK and asking them what their coronavirus business hours are.

It is using the responses to update company listings shown on Google Search and Google Maps.

The Duplex AI assistant can be used by people in the US and New Zealand to make restaurant bookings and other reservations.

But those features are not yet coming to the UK.

Google chief executive Sundar Pichai wrote in a blog post that Google was planning to start using Duplex “where possible” to contact businesses about opening times.

The company confirmed to the BBC that it was being rolled out in the UK for the first time for that reason – but not for consumers to make reservations yet.

It is unclear how many UK businesses will receive calls from Duplex, or how many have already.

News site VentureBeat was the first to spot that a Google support page had added a phone number to identify calls from Google Duplex in the UK, Canada and Australia.

A lifelike AI

Duplex was first demonstrated at Google’s annual I/O developer conference in May 2018.

Many people were surprised at how lifelike Duplex sounded, partly because it used responses like “uh-huh” and “mmm”, but also because it had the ability to respond with the correct answers to some questions.

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Media captionWatch: Google’s voice assistant in action

Some questioned whether people on the other end of the phone would be able to tell they were talking to an AI as opposed to a human.

That raised ethical questions that pressured Google to add a new feature: informing the person who answered the call that they were speaking with a robot.

Now, at the start of a call with Duplex, the recipient is told the reason for the call and that the call is from Google. Businesses can also opt out of receiving calls by telling the AI to stop calling, or to remove them from the list.

Google Duplex calls don’t always come from a robot though. Last May, the New York Times reported that Google sometimes uses humans in call centres to make reservations.

In normal times, Duplex can make bookings online via websites like OpenTable and Yelp.

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