Google is killing ‘Duplex on the Web’, an automated website navigation feature

After you press the
Enlarge / After you press the “Buy Tickets” button, the Google Assistant takes over.

Google

Google discontinues a rather obscure project: Google Duplex on the web. “Duplex” is Google’s branding for AI that “does simple but familiar tasks that save you time.” The branding exists on two products: this “web” feature and Google’s voice AI masquerading as a human, the latter of which we understand is still running. This version of Duplex – Duplex on the Web – was a Google Assistant feature that could autonomously navigate websites on your behalf and do things like purchase items and check in for a flight. The feature may not have been very popular, and TechCrunch spotted a support page update saying Duplex on the Web will be dead by the end of the month.

Duplex on the Web launched in late 2019 and was announced at Google I/O earlier this year. The normal checkout process for an item involves a lot of navigating and pasting saved data. You need to find the item you want and possibly the time slot you want if it’s a reservation, enter your billing information and hit a lot of ‘next’, and Duplex on the Web should be able to do all of that autonomously. While it would probably be faster and more reliable if companies just built a voice API, duplexing on the web was a hack. The wizard would open its own web browser and click through the checkout screens one at a time while you watched. In theory, Google’s automated mouse clicker would have scaled well because it could bring language support to a website without any action on the part of the website owner.

It’s dead now though. Google’s support page states: “Duplex on the Web is deprecated and will no longer be supported as of the end of this month. Any automation features enabled by Duplex on the Web will no longer be supported after this date.” Google told TechCrunch, “By the end of this year, we will be deprecating Duplex on the Web and fully focusing on allowing AI advances on Duplex speech technology do what helps people the most every day.”

We’ll take a wild guess and say that the reason Duplex is dying on the web is due to lack of usage. One of the (many) problems with voice assistants is that they are basically command line interfaces. There is no UI or buttons to alert people to what features are available, so users just have to knows what commands are worth saying. Most people can probably guess, “What will the weather be like tomorrow?” is a valuable command, but very few people probably knew that the assistant can autonomously navigate a website to buy a movie ticket or check in for a flight on your behalf. At least command line interfaces have a “help” command that displays a large list of commands. Since there isn’t a comprehensive list of accepted commands for Google Assistant, it’s not clear how anyone is supposed to learn about these features.

Aside from the perennial problem of discoverability, it’s not clear that this feature has ever solved a problem. It’s not that hard to shop online or check in for a flight because companies are already trying to make things as easy as possible.

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