At the Google I/O conference, Sundar Pichai, CEO of the company, revealed what perhaps will be the killer feature for Google’s Assistant aspirations. In a series of real phone calls, Google Duplex was able to interact with real humans to book appointments and get information. Duplex’s ability to simulate a real human was stunning: Not only can it understand spoken English with its insouciant disrespect for grammar, but it can also simulate the conversational tics natural to human speech across cultures. This is yet another reminder of how close we are to a world driven by AI.

As soon as I saw this, I immediately wanted it. Imagine how much easier and convenient my life could be if I had a real AI assistant making calls and booking things for me (big time sucks, especially when you have little of it in the first place). I mean, yeah, I can get my groceries delivered to my door in under an hour already, but think about making reservations at restaurants, perfunctory and repetitive conversations with car and cab drivers (“Where are you?” “At the place I said in the app when I booked the car…” “Oh, I’m at the roundabout, can you come over this way?” “I’d really rather not.”), and booking appointments with offline services… or even friends and colleagues!

Alas, China is not as voice-driven, and the development of consumer products has been lackluster. Sure, B, A, T, and even J, and X all have their own speakers… but does anyone actually use them? Do they even work? In our testing at TechNode, the results have not been satisfactory. Perhaps it’s my accent? Or maybe my tones aren’t right? But then again, even my accent is more standard (标准普通话) than most Chinese. According to a 2014 report by the Ministry of Education, roughly 7% of Chinese people can speak standard Mandarin smoothly. Compare this to the US where an overwhelming majority of people speak with a Standard American accent. Accents are perhaps the most challenging part of voice recognition and this is doubly so in China, a country with 100s of local languages, some of which are mutually unintelligible (traveling outside of Beijing can be a bit harrowing since my usually strong language abilities fall off a cliff when confronted by an unknown accent).

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John Artman

John Artman is the Editor in Chief for TechNode, the leading English information source for news and insight into China’s tech and startups, and co-host of the China Tech Talk podcast, a regular discussion...