Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaking at the company's I/O conference on May 8, 2018. / Associated Press Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaking at the company's I/O conference on May 8, 2018. / Associated Press

Google Sees Robotic Restaurant Reservations in Our Future

Google announced a lot of shiny new ideas at its annual developers conference yesterday, but the standout restaurant-related announcement was for Google Duplex, a Google Assistant upgrade that can call up a restaurant, have a chat with the reservationist, and book a table for two whenever you like.

The demonstration was incredible: Duplex calls up a small restaurant, asks to make a reservation for four people, and when the reservationist says she can’t take a reservation for less than five people, the software pivots and asks follow up questions. There’s even ‘uhms’ and ‘mmhmms’ splattered throughout the robot’s speech. The reservationist never guesses that there’s not a human on the other end of the line.

There are already plenty of ways to avoid a phone call when booking a reservation, but even though Resy, OpenTable, and others already offer booking options via an app or online, it only works if the restaurant is paying to use the reservation service. Google doesn’t have to integrate with any business, it simply takes the position of a human on the other end of the line. (If you think the reservationists are having all the fun and you’d rather be the one to talk to the robot, Domino’s has got that covered.)

The two questions that follow every starry-eyed tech announcement like this are always: will it actually work, and, will people actually use it? Le Bernardin’s director of strategic partnerships, Cathy Sheary, said in an interview last month that the mass majority of reservations are still taken over the phone even though bookings are available on Resy. “We find that guests like to call and have that connection,” Sheary said at the time, explaining that they can answer specific questions about the menu and dress code.

Human connection aside, if Google Duplex is smart enough to do more than just spit out a time and date — and the demonstration indicates that it is — third-party reservations services might have to watch out on the consumer front. If the tech works as advertised, it’s one step easier than booking through a pile of separate restaurant reservation apps.

Of course, there was no acknowledgement at the conference for the person’s wellbeing on the other end of the line as they field calls from both robots and humans and potentially can’t distinguish between the two. There is a lot of uncomfortable subtext here about the extent to which artificial intelligence can replace human interaction.

Google also announced plans for Duplex to call restaurants, get holiday hours, and input that information into Google Search. In related upgrades, Google has been working with Starbucks, DoorDash, Domino’s, and other restaurants to offer food delivery through Google Home devices. Google Maps will also start displaying personalized food recommendations in the app based on past searches (like Spotify but for food, as The Verge puts it).

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