One hundred and forty-two years after Alexander Graham Bell made the first phone call, we’re on the brink of an unbelievable advancement in telephone automation.
In May [of 2018], Google made quite the splash when it unveiled Duplex, its eerily human-like voice assistant capable of making restaurant reservations and salon appointments. It seemed to mark a new milestone in speech generation and natural-language understanding, and it pulled back the curtain on what the future of human-AI interaction might look like.
– Karen Hao, MIT Technology Review
Google Duplex was so different and exciting because it achieved a form of conversational AI we hadn’t heard yet. It talked naturally, spontaneously, and empathetically. You could even go so far as to say that it passed the Turing Test, basically meaning that its communication was indistinguishable from that of a human.
Six months have passed since that magical day with very little updates. Google Duplex is still only available on the newest Google Pixel phones. However, an international competitor just launched with some similar news. Alibaba – which is basically the Amazon + Google of China – announced a conversational AI just like Duplex that can handle simple service calls with the nuance of human conversation.
In the midst of a conversation about rescheduling a package delivery, Alibaba’s conversational AI eloquently handled an interruption, a nonlinear request, and even implicit intent. This is leagues ahead of the virtual assistants we interact with today.
Why must we be paying attention to these technological updates?
Every major tech company is firing on all cylinders with voice assistants. It’s only a matter of time before Apple launches a Siri update where it can inquire about the availability of a book at your local Barnes & Noble. Fairly soon, there will be an Alexa skill to make calls for dinner reservations.
It’s not that Google, Apple, Amazon, Alibaba, and Microsoft are seeing into the future and finding that we’re going to be using our voices more. No, they’ve all just set their minds to crafting this automated voice calling behavior in the future. To ignore that this’ll happen is to ignore a collective $3.5 trillion of corporate market cap that are buying into this future.
The progression of Duplex and similar conversational AIs will go as follows:
- Simple customer service tasks
- Complex customer service tasks
- Business to business communication
Simple customer service tasks – We’re already seeing this live in action with Duplex and Alibaba. This is where the conversational AI can make calls on a consumer’s behalf and inquire about simple tasks. For instance, making dinner reservations, scheduling a package delivery, asking about product availability, etc… Conversational AIs will master these simple customer service tasks within the next three years.
Complex customer service tasks – Think about the last time you needed to troubleshoot a problem or dispute a billing issue with your telecom/internet provider. A robot probably asked you a series of questions, put you into a specific category, and then connected you with a representative. I’d venture to guess the entire process took over 30 minutes.
About four years from now, Duplex (and competitors) will be able to call customer service centers on your behalf and dispute/troubleshoot problems. (Ironically, this means that two conversational AIs will be talking to one another). We, as consumers, waste a lot of time engaging with the current customer service call centers, therefore, the value of a conversational AI talking on our behalf would be huge. Especially if it can get results.
This leads me to the final area Duplex (and competitors) will enter.
Business to business communication – Although it’s a very complex undertaking, there will come a time when Duplex and other conversational AIs will be used by businesses (not just consumers) to reach out to leads, set-up meetings, and close deals. The savvy businessmen will train Duplex to give their company’s “elevator pitch”, thus acting as a front-of-house salesman – bringing in potential clients nonstop.
We’re at least seven years away from Duplex gaining these full conversational capabilities, but it doesn’t mean that smaller business initiatives cannot be executed in the meantime. The people that begin thinking about this today will have swift implementation when it does come around.
Duplex and Alibaba have given us a taste of conversational AIs that are natural, spontaneous, and empathetic. It’s what we’ve been dreaming of ever since Apple launched Siri in 2011, Amazon’s Alexa in 2015, and Google Assistant in 2016. This is the progress that should excite people of the possibilities once again.
The main takeaway here is that over the past decade we’ve been coerced away from our telephones as tools of commerce. Today, any efforts in the telephone space are half-baked and stale.
The shiny object of the Internet has led us astray from this extremely valuable and personable way of connecting and doing business. However, there are many signs pointing in the direction of vocal communication as a means of doing great business in the next decade. Those who find novel ways of reintroducing voice communication into commercial practice will be seen as great marketers and visionaries.
If you want to get involved, the first step is assessing how you use the telephone and other vocal communication in your business today. When’s the last time you called up your company’s customer support center to give them feedback?
The next step is really thinking of unique ways your business might consider using the telephone as a marketing platform and ultimately how these conversational AIs will fit in one day. Have you ever used public conference calls as a way to bring in new leads?
Concretely, if you’re very excited, go out and purchase yourself a Google Pixel phone and learn the territory. I think there’s also something to be said about creating Alexa skills unique to your business. It’s not Duplex-level, however, Amazon is pouring lots of money into making Alexa a well-rounded communicator.
We’ve all forgotten about the telephone as a platform for marketing, sales, and customer service. Any use of the telephone in business has become predictable and expected. This means the opportunity is ripe to reconsider the use case of the telephone and surprise customers with novel experiences.