Google asks SMBs if they’ll accept calls from Google Assistant

Google is testing business owner interest in receiving calls from an AI robot.

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In what appears to be a single market test, Google is asking Google My Business profile owners whether they’re willing to accept “Google Assistant calls.” The company explains that this means two things: 1) let customers use Google Assistant to book reservations and appointments and 2) allow Google Assistant to confirm factual information about the business.

The screen grab below by Michael Wallace shows the language. It also appears that acceptance is checked by default.

Duplex unbound. This is the next step after the company demoed “Duplex,” at its I/O developer conference in May. Duplex is an AI-powered phone based-system for booking appointments with local businesses that don’t have online scheduling capabilities. It was an impressive and very “natural language” sounding demo. There are multiple recorded examples on the company’s blog post announcing Duplex.

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Here’s how Google described Duplex and its purpose:

Today we announce Google Duplex, a new technology for conducting natural conversations to carry out “real world” tasks over the phone. The technology is directed towards completing specific tasks, such as scheduling certain types of appointments. For such tasks, the system makes the conversational experience as natural as possible, allowing people to speak normally, like they would to another person, without having to adapt to a machine.

During the developer conference I asked some of Google executives working on Duplex about how they would introduce local businesses to capabilities and about the ethical implications of such a natural sounding machine. They were not ready to discuss these issues at the time but said they were being considered.

Getting comfortable with calls from a robot. This is presumably the way that Google will start to socialize Google Assistant/Duplex-business owner interaction. While some people might be uncomfortable to talking to a computer, many business owners might appreciate an expedited verification system or the ability that it might bring to collect additional details about their businesses with little work on their part.

A potential challenge for Google Assistant might be getting some categories of small businesses to answer the phone, especially in an environment when there are a growing number of scam and spam calls. However, the business categories where Google Assistant would most likely make calls would be those where phone interaction is a critical part of the transaction.

A California law that goes into effect in July, 2019 requires companies using intelligent agents/bots for communications with consumers to disclose that these are machines and not people contacting them. The new law requires these disclosures to be “clear, conspicuous, and reasonably designed to inform persons with whom the bot communicates or interacts that it is a bot.”

The disclosure or request in the screen above is probably not sufficient to satisfy this new rule.

What it means for marketers. The idea of AI-generated, human-sounding agents making calls and interacting with people over the phone has profound implications for marketing, sales, analytics and the legal system. One could imagine a time when all telemarketing is done by human-sounding bots capable of interacting and responding to what people are saying.

While there are aspects of this to be concerned about, there are also positive angles for both consumers and business owners. And how long will be before business owners have agents of their own (e.g., bots with voice-enablement) to receive calls from consumers and Google Assistant?

Update: After this published I was contacted by Google, which provided additional information and clarifications. Duplex will initially roll out only in the restaurant vertical “later this year in New York, Atlanta, Phoenix and the San Francisco Bay Area.” Other cities will receive this capability “in the future.”

It will initially be exclusively available to buyers of Google’s Pixel 3 smartphone.

From a business owner perspective, Duplex calls will be opt-out rather than opt-in. When I asked Google whether there would be a recording or some other notification to indicate to businesses that they were talking to a machine, a spokesperson provided the following response:

We believe that providing transparency and control are very important when developing new technologies, and from the early days of building the system we’ve thought carefully about how we can incorporate this. We’ll disclose that you’re speaking with an automated system when making a call.

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About the author

Greg Sterling
Greg Sterling is a Contributing Editor to Search Engine Land, a member of the programming team for SMX events and the VP, Market Insights at Uberall.

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