The unveiling of Google's Duplex a few weeks ago was a game-changer: that almost everyone can agree. But what game did it change?
For one: chatbots.
For me, I'm hopeful I'll never have to waste time on simple transactional phone calls with companies ever again. Of course, that's some time off. But eventually, each of us will have the capability of telling Google, Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Bixby, or whatever AI assistant we use to get things done.
And they will, even if it means interacting with an API-less "real" world.
For now, Duplex means five things will change about bots and chatbots.
1. Bots will get smarter
Duplex made us sit and and take notice. Why? It used a combination of natural language understanding and natural language generation to sound ... natural.
"Duplex indeed put the world in an awe the moment it said 'Umm' on the phone call," says Avi Ben Ezra, founder of SnatchBot. "That is what made people swallow the fact [that] AI is taking over now."
(Full disclosure: I consult for SnatchBot.)
To compete, bots -- particularly the simple kind which have been built on if-then statements -- will need to get significantly smarter. Google's using its AI expertise to understand language and generate language, and that takes some hard-core technology.
2. Bots will need to get more "human"
Thanks to Duplex, people's expectations of what's possible just changed.
Now, whether communicating via voice or text, bots need to be able to act and react in ways that make sense based on human conversational flows. In other words, being mid-flow in customizing your pie with the Pizza Hut bot shouldn't stop you from remembering that you want delivery at the office, not your home.
And the bot should be smart enough to accept that input, react naturally, and re-start the tomatoes-or-olives toppings conversation without a hitch.
That said, there are different use cases.
"Duplex is a better version of a personal assistant," says Julie Blin, former strategy exec at Samsung Mobile. "I think they are complementary."
3. Bots will need to get more multimedia
To date, bots have been mostly about text. And that's great when you're in public, or don't want to disturb people, or need privacy.
But it'd also be nice to be able to simply speak your requests on occasion ... and maybe even do that in full duplex mode. There are serious speed advantages to speech over texting, at least for those over the age of 15.
To compete, bots will have to consider use cases where text is not the only data transmission method.
4. Bots will have to get more specialized
One of the reasons why Duplex works at all is that Google severely restricted the field of play to very simple, transactional conversations: get a table, make an appointment, set a reservation.
Those conversations follow patterns and enable the machine intelligence to make high-probability guesses about what is being said, what's coming next, and how it should respond.
In the same way, bots with specialized knowledge of vertical niches tend to seem smarter, more useful, and more usable.
"There are different use cases for chatbots," says Larry Kim, CEO of Mobile Monkey. "For me it's more as a chat blasting service."
5. But ultimately, bots will need to get more general
Be smart in enough specialized areas and eventually you'll start to seem smart in general. That's the path that bots are likely to take, and the one that will be the most helpful for humans needing service in the future.
Currently, it's easy to stump most chatbots.
Feed them inputs they aren't trained to recognize, and they fail.
If, however, we can train bots in enough domains of expertise, at some point they will be smart enough to fail gracefully. Bots can already transfer challenging conversations to humans, of course, but getting smart should reduce the number of chats that require human touch. And over time, failing gracefully should transition to successfully delivering what's required.
And that's probably the most helpful for humans wanting to save time.
"The main thing to remember from the Google conference: human interactions will change," says Ben Ezra. "What Google is considering with Duplex is basically the end of the superfluous and the painful. It is a redefinition of what we value as social interaction and it is quite the goal behind artificial intelligence research applied to the general public: how to remove the painful tasks that humans need to do on a daily basis. The same way progress in mechanics has lightened physical efforts, artificial intelligence is now progressively lightening mental efforts and is redefining mainstream computing as we know it today."
Some people are horrified by this future.
I understand that, but it is coming nevertheless.
And while it brings certain challenges around what it means to be human, what human-AI interactions should look like, and whether machines should pretend to be human in order to get work done as agents for their creators, it also brings great opportunity.