Google Duplex is boring now. And that's probably good

Commentary: The search giant turns down the creepy on its AI chatbot.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
3 min read
Google CEO Sundar Pichai on stage at Google I/O 2019

Google CEO Sundar Pichai unveiled a version of Duplex that was tamer than last year's. 

James Martin/CNET

From the very moment Google pushed play on a mundane recording of a guy booking a dinner reservation last year, the search giant became embroiled in an intense debate over the ethics of artificial intelligence.

The unremarkable nature of the recording was what made it so unnerving. The guy wasn't a guy at all. It was Google Duplex, a chatbot that uses AI software to mimic human speech with startling accuracy. The audience at Google's I/O developer conference freaked out over the verbal tics -- "uh" and "um" -- that the software used and the natural way it pronounced certain words.

Duplex had the potential to stir controversy again if Google unveiled another big chatbot development during this year's conference keynote on Tuesday. Instead, the company offered a subdued, though impressive, update.

That's probably for the best. 

Watch this: Google Duplex expands beyond phone calls and can book you a rental car

The new feature is called "Duplex on the web" and it's basically autofill on steroids. While the original Duplex was for restaurant reservations and hair appointments, the new version automates booking rental cars and buying movie tickets. It zips through forms on the mobile web, automatically entering information that Google knows about you from your calendar, Gmail inbox and Chrome autofill.

Some people might still find it unsettling that Google knows so much personal information about you. But the Duplex upgrade provoked nowhere near the response Google got for last year's human-sounding robot and its ability to fool the people it was talking to. Compared with that spectacle, this version is downright boring. And boring is pretty good for booking a midsize sedan for your trip to wine country.

"The way we think about Duplex, in broad strokes, it's a model of technology that allows us to automate tasks," Manuel Bronstein, vice president of product for the Assistant, said in an interview ahead of the announcement. "It just happens to be that the first task that we showed to automate was making a phone call to a restaurant."

That's kind of a dull way to talk about something that just a year ago evoked serious sci-fi lore. But for Google, that's a win. The company has drawn blowback for its AI operations, including a March backlash over its artificial intelligence ethics board. Google disbanded the board after only a week.


"Duplex on the web" automates booking of rental cars and movie tickets.

James Martin/CNET

The company is also still reeling from its contract with the Pentagon for Project Maven, a defense department initiative that uses AI to improve the analysis of drone footage. The effort caused an uproar among Google employees.

A handful of workers resigned, and more than 4,000 workers reportedly signed a petition addressed to CEO Sundar Pichai demanding that he cancel the project. Google eventually said it wouldn't renew the Maven contract or pursue similar contracts, though it would still work with the military. Pichai wound up publishing an entire AI ethics memo that stated the company wouldn't develop the technology for use in weapons.

After those dustups, it behooved Google to lie low this year and turn down the creepy AI. And the company certainly learned its lesson last year, Scott Huffman, head of engineering for the Google Assistant, told me earlier this year. "The strength of the reaction surprised me," he said, referring to Duplex's debut. "It made it clear to us how important those societal questions are going forward."

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