Google Duplex: a data dictatorship?
In the 2019 Google I/O event, CEO Sundar Pichai demonstrated the next evolution of Google’s Duplex technology. Having already built capabilities to automatically book hair salon and restaurant appointments by actually calling the business and speaking with people, Duplex will next be moving to the web and filling out forms for you, for car rentals and movie tickets.
The technological feat behind this is amazing. In order for Duplex to be able to successfully complete a transaction, it needs to have rich, contextual information about you, your car driving needs, your preferences, departure and arrival times, and access to financial information. With all that at hand, it then also needs to understand the ins and outs of the often confusing online booking forms across multiple providers, deal with errors, inconsistencies, and changes to the process. The deceptively simple task of autonomously and reliably booking a car using the actual forms that a human would fill in (and not some deep integration with a single provider) is an incredible problem to solve.
The implications of customer centricity
Google, of course, will talk about making Google Assistant (the product it gives away for free) better for consumers. It is making it safe, reliable, smooth and enjoyable to complete certain activities. That is certainly one aspect of it. The more helpful Google Assistant is, the more people will want to use it. It doesn’t end there though, and we as consumers and businesses, in an age where the innocence of technological platforms is well and truly gone, need to dig deeper and question further. What are the implications for us as consumers and the companies involved? How does the balance of power shift when the process changes from one where we search on Google, decide on our own from the choices presented, interact with and compare multiple service providers and so on, to one where Google completes the entire transaction for us. One path to follow for answers is Google’s mission.
“Our mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
Once you’ve figured out where things are (Google Search, Google Maps) and what things are (Google Knowledge Graph), the next step is to understand how things are done. With reliable models of how things are done in a digitised world, you can then go ahead and do them. Is Google Duplex just the tip of the iceberg in Google’s effort to understand how things are done in order to go ahead and doing them? If so, what does it mean to simply have things done for us? This leads to the other area where we could look for clues: the travel industry.
An industrial transformation
The travel industry went from one where the centre of the world was the travel agent, with their network of personal relationships and wealth of actual travel experience, to a highly sophisticated network of distribution channels where flights, accommodation and experiences can be booked via sites that act as aggregators like Booking.com, Hotel.com, and Viator. These companies even substitute the agent’s knowledge by using other travellers’ experience to provide guidance through reviews. The level of sophistication is so high that you also have sites that act as meta-search engines, aggregating the results of the aggregators (Trivago, Kayak, Tripadvisor).
These aggregators won by being able to focus on offering a better and richer digital experience. They don’t have to run actual hotels or show people around a new place. They can concentrate on making the online experience as safe, reliable, smooth and enjoyable as possible. Consumers like them because they can see all their options in one place and then quickly complete the transaction. The service providers – the hotels, airlines and experience providers – on the other end of the transaction are in a constant love-hate relationship. They would much rather have the consumers interact directly with them instead of having to give as much as 30 per cent commission to aggregators, a tool that also makes it easy for people to find out who their competitors are. However, they also cannot see how they could possibly match those marketing budgets to reach the same amount of people. The aggregators keep getting stronger, unencumbered by analogue world worries, while the service providers struggle to compete at a technology level and keep margins up.
Now, fast forward to a world where technologies like Google Duplex have evolved enough that consumers actually trust them to go ahead and book hotels and experiences and the myriad other things we do in our lives. Consumers know that Google Assistant will simply get it right and allow it to take the initiative and even surprise them.
The first to worry will be the other mediators. The Booking.coms of the world know full well that their biggest upcoming threat comes from the big platforms that already command the traffic. Service providers like hotels even enjoy the fact that Google is putting the pressure on, and they like having what feels like a more direct relationship with consumers by paying Google directly to take the user straight to the hotel website instead of an aggregator. What happens when the mediators disappear, though? When there is only one huge platform, that decides through a series of obscure and potentially unregulated algorithms who gets a booking, and who doesn’t?
Think about it. What Google is doing with Duplex is creating a world where even if you refuse to be listed on Google search results and want to fight this unwinnable battle on your own, Google Duplex can still come to your website, fill out the forms and complete the booking on behalf of the user. Your phone will still ring and a human-sounding voice will be on the other side. Involuntary, even if you are not paying Google a commission, you are giving Google data about how you run your own business. The aggregate of that information may well turn out to be more valuable than a 10 per cent cut on the booking itself.
Now is the time to start asking these questions, looking at our companies, our customers and, more importantly, our world, and thinking about how we want it to evolve. I don’t believe that Google is executing some sinister secret plan to cause harm. They are simply following the technical threads, the commercial possibilities and are looking to please their users. When they say they want to make things better for both business and consumers they may well be sincere. We already have proof, however, of how good intentions on large technological platforms can come with unintended consequences. We can’t leave it to these companies alone to figure out what the consequences are. Society at large needs to start asking the questions and setting up norms and regulations that will create an environment where a few large companies do not control the fate of hundreds of thousands of smaller businesses.
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