When Google introduced Google Duplex, its AI assistant designed to speak like a human, the company showed off how the average person could use the tech to save time making reservations and whatnot. What wasn’t touched on was the possibility that Duplex may have a use on the other side of the line, taking over for call center employees and telemarketers.
A report from The Information suggests Google may be making a play to find other applications for its human-sounding assistant and has already started experimenting with ways to use Duplex to do with away roles currently filled by humans—a move that could have ramifications for millions of people.
Citing a person familiar with Google’s plans, The Information reported the company is already in conversation with at least one potential customer that would like to integrate Duplex into its operations. That firm, an unnamed large insurance company, is reportedly interested in using the voice assistant to handle simple, straightforward customer service calls.
A spokesperson for Google told Gizmodo the following:
We’re currently focused on consumer use cases for the Duplex technology where we can help people get things done, rather than applying it to potential enterprise use cases. We aren’t testing Duplex with any enterprise clients. Duplex is designed to operate in very specific use cases, and currently we’re focused on testing with restaurant reservations, hair salon booking, and holiday hours with a limited set of trusted testers. It’s important that we get the experience right, and we’re taking a slow and measured approach as we incorporate learnings and feedback from our tests.
If Google can find its way into the business of automated phone calls for companies, it could creep its way into a massive profit center. The research firm ResearchAndMarkets projects the cloud-based customer call center market will reach about $21 billion by 2022—up from $6.8 billion in 2017.
Of course, as the market expands, so will the competition, and Google isn’t the only major tech firm that sees opportunity in entering call centers. Last year, Amazon started selling a version of its wildly popular voice assistant Alexa designed specifically for use responding to questions via phone and text. Companies like IBM, Microsoft, and Cisco also already have their foot in the door of this business, per The Information.
While there may be major profits awaiting these firms as the conquer call centers, they also come with a cost: humans will inevitably be bumped from the jobs. Most companies already outsource the work to countries where they can pay paltry wages in order to keep the expenses related to customer service down, and AI would likely cut those costs even more. That would be devastating for a nation like the Philippines, which has an estimated 1.2 million call-center workers according to the Wall Street Journal.
Historically, one of the biggest obstacles to eliminating the human aspect of customer call interactions is the fact that the AI kinda sucks to deal with. A 2015 survey conducted by The Conversation found that the vast majority of people—90 percent of those questioned—call into customer service hoping to speak with a human. About eight in 10 said they speed through the automated portion with the intention of talking to a person, and just 10 percent reported being satisfied with so-called “interactive voice response systems.”
Google Duplex may have a solution to that problem by making the automated interactions less robotic and more life-like. Google wowed people with its demo of Duplex that included the AI assistant inserting “um” and “uh” sounds to make the conversation seem more fluid.
That may also have the complete opposite effect on people. Some folks found the Duplex demo was scary as hell and worried about the ethical concerns of AI basically faking people out by pretending to be human. Backlash eventually made Google promise that Duplex will tell people they are speaking with AI, but the company still has a way to go to ease everyone’s worries.
That seems to be a hang-up for Google’s efforts to get into the call center business, as well. According to The Information, “ethical concerns” overshadowed Google’s demonstration of the Duplex technology, and the company interested in the assistant has pumped the brakes on the proposed project.
Update, July 6, 2:00am: The story has been updated to include a statement from Google.