Google testing Duplex feature that adds names to restaurant waitlists

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Google appears to be testing a new feature that allows users to add themselves and their parties to waitlists at restaurants that would normally require a phone call. Powered by Duplex, Google’s AI-driven natural language processing technology that can converse with business owners over the phone, the waitlist capability could benefit hospitality organizations facing surges in traffic as pandemic fears abate.

People in the U.S. are returning to restaurants as the coronavirus appears to wane, leading to overcrowded dining rooms. Complicating matters, even before the pandemic restaurants struggled to juggle phone-based waitlists, not uncommonly leading to inaccurate wait times and long lines. One survey found that 72% of diners make reservations over the phone, eschewing online, in-person, or mobile app options.

On the other hand, businesses sometimes confuse Duplex with automated spam robocalls, The Verge has found. And an influx of Duplex calls about waitlist status could threaten to overwhelm restaurants with limited staff.

Google Duplex restaurant waitlist

A solution might lie in Google Assistant’s new waitlist option, which showed up yesterday on this reporter’s OnePlus Nord N10 5G for restaurants in Google Maps and Google Search. Appearing as a “Request to Join Waitlist” button under listings in Maps and Search, it asks a user to specify their party size and maximum wait time (e.g., over 30 minutes, under 30 minutes) “in case the restaurant has a waitlist.” Pulling info saved to the user’s Google Account, including their name and phone number, Google Assistant (i.e., Duplex) attempts to call the restaurant to add their party to the waitlist.

Google Duplex restaurant waitlist

Google Assistant provides text updates as it places the call, indicating whether it’s been successful or not. After we had waited about 30 minutes, Google Assistant reported that it had failed to secure a spot at Opus, a bistro in Salem, Massachusetts. A follow-up visit to the restaurant revealed that tables weren’t available because the kitchen had closed earlier in the evening.

Google Duplex restaurant waitlist

When contacted for comment, a Google spokesperson told VentureBeat via email that they had “nothing more to share” at this time. “[W]e’re constantly experimenting with new features that use Duplex technology and do not have a timeline on when [or] if this specific capability will be available to the broader Google Assistant users [or restaurants],” the spokesperson said.

Duplex expanding

Google received a ton of blowback after its initial Duplex demo in 2018, as many were not amused by how well it could mimic a human. As of October 2020, 99% of Duplex calls are fully automated, according to Google, with the rest being handled by human operators.

Part of the reason Duplex sounds so natural is that it taps Google’s sophisticated WaveNet audio processing neural network and intelligently inserts “speech disfluencies” — the “ums” and “ahs” people make involuntarily in the course of a conversation. In June 2018, Google promised Duplex would first introduce itself.

Indeed, Duplex makes it clear the call is automated — and it doesn’t call late at night or early in the morning. In all countries where it has launched, Duplex informs the person on the other end that they’re being recorded, and in some cases it provides a callback number. The call is handed off to a human operator on an unrecorded line if business owners respond with “I don’t want to be recorded” or some variation of the phrase.

According to Google, operators annotate the call transcripts used to train Duplex’s algorithms.

In light of the pandemic, the focus of Duplex’s development had pivoted from bookings to store hours and inventory check-ins, as well as expansion beyond the U.S. to Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, India, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Spain, and the U.K., with languages including Spanish and Hindi. But in October, Google rolled out Duplex’s availability to call barbershops, hairstylists, and salons to reserve appointments on a user’s behalf. The company more recently brought Duplex support to Nest smart displays, allowing owners to book a table at restaurants via Google Assistant.

Duplex — and its underlying technology — has also expanded to the web in recent years, automating tasks like purchasing tickets, checking into flights, and ordering food. Google most recently announced assisted checkout for retail, which clicks through guest checkout flows and auto-populates a user’s payment information on supported ecommerce sites.


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Google’s AI reservation service Duplex is now available in 49 states

More than two years after it initially began trials, Google’s AI-powered reservation service Duplex is now available in 49 US states. This looks like it’ll be the limit of Duplex’s coverage in the US for the time being, as Google tells The Verge it has no timeline to launch the service in the last hold-out state — Louisiana — due to unspecified local laws.

Adapting to local legislation is one of the reasons Duplex has taken so long to roll out across the US. Google tells The Verge it’s had to add certain features to the service (like offering a call-back number for businesses contacted by Duplex) to make it legal in some states. In others, it’s simply waited for legislation to change.

The new milestone of 49 states was spotted by AndroidPolice, based on a Google support page that lists Duplex’s availability. In each of these states Duplex will be able to book appointments (like reservations at restaurants) and call businesses to check information like opening hours.

Google wowed audiences when it first unveiled Duplex at its 2018 I/O conference. As a feature of Google Assistant, Duplex uses AI to call local businesses, making reservations at restaurants and hairdressers on your behalf using a realistic-sounding artificial voice.

Initially, it seemed Google promised more than it could deliver. In 2019 it was revealed that 25 percent of Duplex calls are made by humans, and that 19 percent of calls started by the automated system have to be completed by people. And in our own reporting, we found that restaurants often confused Duplex with automated spam robocalls. As of October last year, though, Google says 99 percent of Duplex calls are fully automated.

As businesses begin to open up again this year, it’ll be interesting to see if Duplex can keep up.

Update April 1, 12:45PM ET: Story has been updated with most recent data on the percentage of Duplex calls that are fully automated.

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Tech News

Nest smart displays to get Google Duplex support, Guest Mode upgrade

Google Assistant has always revolved around voice interactions but Google was able to give it a face in the form of smart displays. Now falling under the Nest smart home brand, Google has provided some visual feedback to augment Google Assistant’s capabilities in your house. Not all smart Assistant features are available yet on those smart displays, however, and one upcoming addition will make booking tables at restaurants a breeze. At least when Google Duplex does finally arrive on the Nest Hub Max and its kin.

Google Duplex is one of those astounding yet also frightening demonstrations of Google’s AI prowess. It takes Google Assistant’s helpfulness to a whole new level by calling restaurants and services and making reservations for you. The more impressive aspect of Duplex is how it is able to carry a conversation with a (presumably) human receptionist as if it were human itself.

Duplex has so far been available not only in limited markets and businesses but also only on phones. That makes sense considering most people still make calls using their phones. These days, however, smart speakers and smart displays also stand in for phones when at home and soon the latter will also be able to make reservations for you. You can either tell Google Assistant directly to make a reservation or tap on the “book a table” suggestion chip when viewing the details of a supported establishment.

Google Duplex on Nest smart displays is still marked as “Coming Soon” but one new feature that is already available enhances the Guest Mode experience. Assistant can now speak in French, Italian, German, Spanish, Japanese, and Korean to make guests feel welcome at your home. And you don’t also have to worry since Guest Mode won’t store their interactions or reveal personal results to others.

This is just one part of Google’s push for new entertainment features across its platforms. At the top of that list is, of course, Stadia’s upcoming arrival on Chromecast with Google TV, which heralds Stadia’s to Android TV which it probably should have since day one.

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