Finally, we get to see the day that artificial intelligence is being put to good use: making phone calls.
Google this week unveiled Duplex, which is a new technology for conducting natural conversations to carry out specific tasks over the phone.
No, you can’t employ it to call your mother once a week. But, if you need to schedule an appointment or book a reservation, Duplex is your man … er, software.
Unlike the choppy, emotionless voice assistants we’ve come to know and love (or hate), Duplex sounds organic; the system barely betrays its robotic side, speaking as smoothly as anyone with a firm grasp of the English language.
It even throws in the occasional "um…" to give the impression of an unprepared human.
"The Google Duplex technology is built to sound natural, to make the conversation experience comfortable," project lead Yaniv Leviathan and engineering VP Yossi Matias wrote in a blog announcement.
A task easier said than done.
In spontaneous speech, most people talk faster and less clearly and use more complex sentences than when speaking to a machine.
"So speech recognition is harder and we see higher word error rates," the blog said, lamenting the addition of loud background noise and sound quality issues.
The process becomes even more difficult in longer conversations when sentences more often rely on context.
Duplex at its core is a recurrent neural network, trained on a collection of anonymised phone conversation data; the RNN uses the output of Google’s automatic speech recognition (ASR) tech, as well as other features.
The system, Leviathan and Matias boasted, is "capable of carrying out sophisticated conversations and it completes the majority of its tasks fully autonomously, without human involvement." (Google’s emphasis, not ours.)
A built-in self-monitoring capability allows Duplex to recognise tasks out of its purview – like scheduling an unusually complex appointment – and tag teams a human operator.
As ever, Google isn’t limiting its service to just one set of users. Businesses can benefit from Duplex by allowing customers to book through Google Assistant, while customers can call businesses to inquire about information or an appointment.
"Allowing people to interact with technology as naturally as they interact with each other has been a long-standing promise," Matias and Leviathan wrote. "Google Duplex takes a step in this direction, making interaction with technology via natural conversation a reality in specific scenarios.
"We hope that these technological advances will ultimately contribute to a meaningful improvement in people’s experience in day-to-day interactions with computers."
If you have not seen the video, have a look here, it might freak you out, but just a little bit.