AI: are you being duped by Google’s Duplex?

AI: are you being duped by Google’s Duplex?

Getting a realistic view on the rise of the machines means being aware of the hype cycle

Film buffs will know that this year marks the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – a film that consistently ranks in my personal top 10 favourites. Its plot included that great sci-fi trope, the Malign Artificial Intelligence (AI), in the shape of HAL, the on-board computer who attempts to kill the two astronauts and then take over the Jupiter mission that forms the main portion of the film.

Well, the year 2001 has come and gone and the only Jupiter missions we’re making are unmanned so, once again, the rate of technology development and innovation relative to its fictional counterparts has let us down. The tech-prediction industry is subject to massive distortion and hugely unreliable: whether it’s in fiction or building on current innovation it’s an act of imagination after all.

So how much weight should we give to the current hype around AI?


Google demonstrated a pretty impressive new piece of tech the other week. Dubbed Google Duplex this piece of Benign AI can do some things that a PA might do like book hair appointments or get you a table to meet clients, even book a conference room. On first view, the tech is impressive. The software has the ability to imitate a human’s natural foibles in speech – even the umms and ahs. It is impressive in that it appears so natural. That said, the range of functions it can perform is still pretty limited and to be honest, the amount of time saved is not going to be huge – who finds booking a hair appointment a problem? And it also raises ethical issues about whether you disclose that it’s a machine who’s talking to you.

I’m not going to second-guess Google’s future plans, but Duplex, as impressive as it sounds in demonstration is not particularly revolutionary, at least not in the outcome it creates. It’s not a “game changer”. At least not yet.

My question is “does this advance in technology create any new opportunities for improving things for my customers?”

Answering this question involves steering a way between hype and thinking creatively about the possible outcomes. I can see the cost-saving implications over time as this sort of technology becomes more available, cheaper and smarter, but consistently great customer experience is a challenge even for highly talented human beings so can a machine seriously contribute?

Robot wars

It’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to picture a situation where Google’s Duplex assistant can be the recipient of calls. Indeed, it’s easy for the sensationalist journalist to produce headlines such as “Rise of robots threatens to terminate the UK call-centre workforce” – as was recently reported in the Guardian.

The cost-saving potential alone shows it’s a threat to existing ways of managing customer queries. But customers are notoriously fickle. Some will have no issue with an all-knowing virtual call centre assistant without the almost obligatory wait whilst others will be less impressed with the lack of genuine human interaction. Does automated response increase customer experience or reduce it?

For quite a long time, anything other than a simple interaction will require hand-off to a trained human service representative. People who are not clear communicators may find the experience frustrating even though technology’s ability to understand a wide variety of communication styles is improving.

Whilst it’s not a dramatic rise-of-the-machines Terminator-style threat just yet, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan for it.

Keep thinking

And by plan, I mean imaginative, creative planning that continually tracks and assesses customer outcomes in the context of what developments are underway. In meetings last week with potential contributors to The Next Ten Years – with a deep interest in AI-driven innovation – we examined possibilities created in different markets.

In banking, it’s easy to picture an extension to services like Monzo’s which allows customers to keep tabs on spending across various categories with automated proactive review on past spending patterns, income etc to provide a more holistic view of your finances and spending possibilities. I can imagine the app being extended from money management into lifestyle management (which from a consumer customer perspective is the business banking should be in) tut-tutting at you if you buy an extra round of drinks and immobilising the car if you don’t blow into a tube before attempting to drive home etc etc. It might also tell you the planned holiday in the sun is going to be 2% more expensive now because it’s linked your planned spending patterns to alternative providers giving you a stream of alternative options whilst you make your decision.

The individual apps to accomplish most of these things are mostly available now, but the potential sifting through of alternatives that can be done automatically without human intervention is the next development that will help identify critical information in relation to your needs.

The possibilities are endless but the distortion , false information and misaligned results  are not only ever present but increasing difficult to manage as the information world continues to explode with endless alternatives.

Think outcomes

Even in my made-up example I’ve moved from the customer outcome that Monzo current delivers which could be phrased as “keep tabs on my spending” to “help me stay on track financially, now and in future” or “help me manage my lifestyle”.

The deep understanding and alignment to customer outcomes is where the opportunity lies. Sure, advances in robotics will change the nature of the call centre in the next few years (very likely within three to five) but viewing these as cost and efficiency improvements with a same or slightly improved experience is to miss the wider opportunity.

A view on Customer Success i.e. the delivery of desired outcomes and enhanced experiences will be absolutely critical to maximising the impact of any new technology. Starting with the customer, looking beyond the immediate hype and taking a realistic view of technology progress will help – as futurist Roy Amara put it:

“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”

Or as Michael Hammer observed:

 “We need to prepare for a world that cannot be predicted.”

Actually, the nearest we can come to prediction is the needs, wants and preferences of our customers. We need to place considerably greater focus on that to help harness the sheer potential that AI offers.

Keeping focused on customer outcomes will keep you focused on the long run. It’s possibly the only predictor that you can rely on!

Nick Bush

Nick is a business advisor and non-executive director who helps organisations improve their focus and performance by developing customer-centred strategies and business plans. He has helped companies transform the way they do business through better strategies, change management and technology, with a relentless focus on the customer. Nick has worked across all kinds of business sectors from telecoms to banking, chemicals to charities - as owner of Open Chord his current focus is on helping arts and non-profit organisations to be more successful by creating a solid planning foundation that will help them grow.

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