Google shuts down Duplex on the Web, its attempt to bring AI smarts to retail sites and more

Google is shutting down Duplex on the Web, its AI-powered set of services that navigated sites to simplify the process of ordering food, purchasing movie tickets and more. According to a note on a Google support page, Google on the Web and any automation features enabled by it will no longer be supported as of this month.

“As we continue to improve the Duplex experience, we’re responding to the feedback we’ve heard from users and developers about how to make it even better,” a Google spokesperson told TechCrunch via email, adding that Duplex on the Web partners have been notified to help them prepare for the shutdown. “By the end of this year, we’ll turn down Duplex on the Web and fully focus on making AI advancements to the Duplex voice technology that helps people most every day.”

Google introduced Duplex on the Web, an outgrowth of its call-automating Duplex technology, during its 2019 Google I/O developer conference. To start, it was focused on a couple of narrow use cases, including opening a movie theater chain’s website to fill out all of the necessary information on a user’s behalf — pausing to prompt for choices like seats. But Duplex on the Web later expanded to passwords, helping users automatically change passwords exposed in a data breach, as well as assisted checkout for ecommerce retailers, flight check-in for airline sites and automatic discount finding.

The promise of Duplex on the Web was that you’d be able to issue Google Assistant a command like “Book me a car from Hertz” and have Duplex pull up the relevant web page and automatically fill in details like your name, car preferences, trip dates and payment information (using information from Gmail and Chrome autofill). But the rollout was slow to begin with, with only a limited number of sites and partners supported for specific use cases. Android was the only platform from which Duplex on the Web could be used, with the service coming to Chrome for Android as “Assistant in Chrome” in late 2019.

Duplex on the Web being used to book a car.

Was the technical lift too much in the end for Google to justify maintaining Duplex on the Web? Maybe. As the Duplex on the Web support page outlines, Duplex used a special user agent that crawled sites as often as several hours a day to “train” periodically against them, fine-tuning AI models to understand how the sites were laid out and functioned from a user’s perspectives. It was surely resource-intensive, and could be tripped up easily if site owners chose to block the crawler from indexing their content.

Some brands were no doubt uncomfortable with the idea of Google inserting itself between them and their customers, as well. But perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back was cuts on the Assistant side of Google’s business. According to a recent report in The Information, Google plans to invest less in developing Google Assistant for devices not made by Google, spurred by the idea that other areas of the enterprise, such as  hardware, will prove to be more profitable over the long term.

Time will tell whether that’s the case. But what’s for sure is, Duplex on the Web has joined the infamous hall of much-ballyhooed-then-abandoned Google products.

Google shuts down Duplex on the Web, its attempt to bring AI smarts to retail sites and more by Kyle Wiggers originally published on TechCrunch

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