Google has unveiled artificial intelligence software that books appointments over the phone on behalf of users by conducting voice-based conversations on their behalf.
Chief executive Sundar Pichair said that Google Duplex would launch as an “experiment” over the coming weeks.
The facility was unveiled at the firm’s annual IO developers conference.
Experts have said that if it works it could give the firm a major advantage over rival virtual assistants.
Pre-recorded demonstrations played back to the audience featured the software first booking a haircut and then making a restaurant reservation by speaking to two human employees.
One of the cases involved Google Assistant coping with a worker who seemed confused by straightforward questions.
The computer-generated voice sounded much more natural than the virtual helper had done in the past and included “ums” and other sounds typically produced in human speech.
At no point did it identify itself as a machine.
“Done correctly, it will save time for people and generate a lot of value for businesses,” suggested Mr Pichai.
He added that initially, the software would be used to call businesses to confirm their holiday opening times, and would then automatically update the information on the pages Google provides about them.
“Hard to believe this was real,” commented Ben Bajaran, an analyst at the consultancy Creative Strategies after the demo.
“You cannot underestimate the value consumers will see in these voice assistants.
“Apple cannot fall too far behind because this is the kind of thing I can see people switching platforms for.”
Other experts, however, remarked that people would have to be convinced to trust the software if it is to be widely adopted.
News and Maps
Google also announced a new version of its News tool.
A Full Coverage feature will let users delve deeper into stories of their choice, providing headlines from different “trusted” sources, Q&As, social media posts and relevant timelines among other information.
Unlike many of firm’s services, the content will not be personalised.
“Having a productive conversation or debate requires everyone to have access to the same information,” Google said in blog that provides more detail.
The tech giant also showed off new features being added to its Maps software.
These included the addition of augmented reality graphics that overlay information onto camera views of the path ahead in order to provide easier-to-understand directions than before.
Cartoon characters are also being introduced to guide users which way to walk, while tapping on restaurants and other select venues will now provide scores indicating how much a person is likely to enjoy a visit based on Google’s analysis of their past behaviour.
Google’s augmented reality chief Aparna Chennapragada also described work that had been done to improve the software’s ability to know where phone owners are located.
“GPS alone doesn’t cut it,” she explained.
“That’s why we’ve been working on what we call VPS – visual positioning system – that can estimate precise positioning and orientation [by using] visual features in the environment.”
‘Careful and deliberate’
The Google IO event comes a week after Facebook held its own developers conference under the shadow of a data privacy scandal, which has prompted wider questions about the amount of personal information being gathered and processed by the tech industry.
Mr Pichai did not refer to the controversy directly, but briefly addressed consumers’ concerns.
“There are very real and important questions being raised about the impact of these advances and the role they will play in our lives,” he said towards the beginning of his presentation.
“So, we know the path ahead needs to be navigated carefully and deliberately, and we feel a deep sense of responsibility to get this right.”
The firm dedicated a section of its opening presentation to what it referred to as Digital Wellbeing technologies.
These included the ability to schedule screen breaks on YouTube to encourage young users to avoid spending too long on the app at a time.
Parents also gain the ability to schedule when internet connectivity should be paused to some or all of the devices being used in a home.
And Android is to gain a new app dashboard that provides details about how much time users have spent using different services over the course of a day.
“We are delighted that Google has heard the call from stressed-out parents to create ways to limit and control their kids tech use and to find a better balance in their own digital lives,” Stephen Balkam, chief executive of the Family Online Safety Institute, told the BBC.
By Dave Lee, North America technology reporter
We’ve reached a tipping point in our use of computers, a time when the number of apps trying to get our attention with notifications and updates is making us many of us feel overwhelmed.
That wasn’t a mistake – many apps were aggressively designed to attract and lock in our attention. But maybe not for much longer.
Much of Google’s focus at IO this year is about what it dubbed Jomo – the “joy of missing out”.
This is to be welcomed.
Any move to reduce screen-time – particularly of youngsters – seems a good idea.
But you have to question whether the same companies that got us into this mess can save us from it.
Google’s business is still about attention – and the company knows full well that the addictive nature of YouTube won’t be affected by a prompt saying “take a break”.
That said, therapists often say that acknowledgment is the first stage of recovery, and Google’s moves in the area could be appreciated by many.
Other announcements included:
- Gmail will be able to automatically complete sentences by adding several words at a time based on information collected about the user
- Google Photos will propose Suggested Actions, including sending copies of an image to people it recognises in a shot, colourising black-and-white pictures, and converting photos of documents into PDFs
- Google Assistant gains six new voices, can be made to encourage children to use the word “please”, and can handle follow-up requests without the need to say “hey Google” each time
Android continues to dominate the handset market.
Google’s operating system powered 85.9% of all smartphones sold last year, according to research firm Gartner, marking a 1.1% gain on 2016.
Furthermore, it accounted for four out of every five mobile app downloads, according to analytics firm App Annie. Google’s own Play Store drove two out of every five smartphone and tablet app installations.
Apple will host its own developers conference on 4 June.