Google launches AI secretary that waits on hold for phone users

Hold music could one day be a thing of the past thanks to a service coming to Google’s smartphones.

Hold for Me, which launches on Thursday in the US for owners of Google’s Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a phones, involves Google’s AI tools taking over as an automatic secretary when on hold to a call centre, leaving the user free to put down the phone and carry on with their life.

The service will listen out for when the call is picked up and send a notification when it’s time for the user to get back on the phone. In the meantime, Google’s assistant will ask the call centre to hold, hopefully stopping them from hanging up because of dead air.

“Every business’s hold loop is different and simple algorithms can’t accurately detect when a customer support representative comes on to the call,” Google’s Andrew Goodman and Joseph Cherukara said. “Hold for Me is powered by Google’s Duplex technology, which not only recognises hold music but also understands the difference between a recorded message (like ‘Hello, thank you for waiting’) and a representative on the line.”

The service has some limitations. The initial rollout is extremely limited – the Pixel 5 phone has a reported production run of just 800,000 units – and Google has not yet announced any plans to launch the service on other devices. Additionally, it only works in the US with toll-free numbers.

At the heart of the feature is Google’s Duplex, the sometimes controversial technology that the company has used to offer an increasing amount of telephone-based automation.

First launched in 2018, Duplex allows Google users to schedule appointments and make reservations in restaurants automatically, with the AI assistant making the phone call.

When it was announced, the voice synthesis was so lifelike – even introducing “er” and “mmm-hmm” to fill gaps between words – that some criticised it as “deceitful”. Within a week of the launch, Google promised that the software would identify itself as a robot when calling businesses.

Duplex has also been used by Google behind the scenes to help it gather information for its Maps product. By using it to automatically call businesses and ask about their opening hours, Google was able to fill in blank spots in its data for companies with poor websites.

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