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Google Duplex now speaks Spanish, starts calling businesses in Spain to update hours

Google today launched Google Duplex, its AI chat agent that can arrange appointments over the phone, in Spain to automate the updating of business hours across Google Search and Google Maps. For the first time, it’s speaking in Spanish — Duplex previously only spoke in English.

The expansion follows a pilot in New New Zealand and Duplex’s quiet expansion to the U.K., Australia, and Canada. It also comes as Google looks to leverage Duplex to confirm which stores are closed as a result of shelter-in-place orders intended to limit the spread of COVID-19. In a March blog post, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said the company was increasingly using Duplex “where possible” to contact restaurants and businesses about their hours so it can reflect them accurately.

A Google spokesperson told VentureBeat via email that the Spain rollout is part of that effort and “only for confirming store hours only during the health situation.”

Late last year, Google brought Duplex to select “devices that can access Search or Maps,” expanding its availability beyond Pixel phones, iOS devices, and select third-party Android devices. To be clear, it’s not quite the Duplex experience Google demoed at its I/O 2018 developers conference in May — in the U.K., Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Spain, Duplex can’t make restaurant reservations as it can in 48 U.S. states. But it’s no longer limited to businesses Google has explicitly partnered with through its Reserve with Google program.

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At the beginning of an exchange, Duplex makes it clear that the call is automated, and it doesn’t call late at night or early in the morning. In all countries, Duplex informs the person on the other end that they’re being recorded. If restaurant owners and front of house staff respond with “I don’t want to be recorded” or some variation of the phrase, the call is handed off to a human operator on an unrecorded line. (Those operators also annotate the call transcripts used to train Duplex’s algorithms.)

Google received a ton of criticism after its initial Duplex demo in 2018 — many were not amused by Google Assistant mimicking a human so well. In June of that year, the company promised that Google Assistant using Duplex would first introduce itself.

Part of the reason Duplex sounds so natural is because it taps Google’s sophisticated WaveNet audio processing neural network and intelligently inserts “speech disfluencies” — the “ums” and “ahs” people make involuntarily in the course of a conversation. These come from a branch of linguistics known as pragmatics, which deals with language in use and the contexts in which it is used — including things like taking turns in conversation, text organization, and presupposition.

Still, Google appears to be hedging its bets with Assistant on the Web, a relatively new service that uses Duplex technology to handle things like car rentals and movie ticket bookings on the mobile web. Assistant on the Web launched in general availability in November 2019, starting with movie ticket purchasing — Google partnered with over 70 cinema chains and ticket sellers in the U.S. and U.K., including  AMC, Fandango, MJR Theaters, Movietickets.com, and Odeon.

With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, rollouts and development of Assistant on the Web and Duplex are likely to slow as governments mandate that non-essential businesses shut their doors.