Google Duplex is Asking Stores About Their Toilet Paper and Hand Sanitizer Supplies

The Google Duplex voice AI service is adding questions about inventory to its phone calls with businesses. The AI has expanded its remit beyond making reservations and information gathering as a way of helping consumers and businesses deal with the potential shortfall of certain items during the current COVID-19 health crisis.

AI Inventory

Google Duplex applies Google Assistant technology to call businesses and check opening times, make appointments, and otherwise as act as a semi-independent agent for a Google Assistant user. Now, when someone at a store speaks with the AI, they may get asked about whether they have certain items in stock, and how much is available. The updated support page for Google Duplex refers to them as “in-demand inventory,” suggesting that the products it asks about will vary among different businesses.

“To help consumers make more informed decisions about when to leave the house during social distancing, we’re experimenting with ways to surface the availability of critical products such as toilet paper, hand sanitizer and cleaning solutions,” a Google spokesperson told Voicebot in an emailed statement.

As the statement indicates, the new questions have grown out of the ongoing pandemic. Though there hasn’t yet been a national shortage of any of those items, there have been reports of people buying as much toilet paper and cleaning supplies as possible, which could mean some stores are out of or low on the items. When Duplex calls a business, the person answering is told the call is automated and recorded. The person can opt not to be recorded, which will forward the call to a human operator at Google. Otherwise, the AI will ask about certain items, as well as any changes to opening hours or other details affected by the pandemic. The new questions complement Google’s other COVID-19 additions to its database, such as options for curbside pickup and delivery.

Local Inventory Feed

Google didn’t respond to a question about how Duplex picks the stores to call. It’s possible that it is just cold calling as many stores that might carry those essential items as it can. A more reasonable scenario is that the addition is an extension of the local inventory feed tool it debuted at the end of 2017 to help holiday shoppers find specific items. When potential customers would ask Google Assistant about buying food or electronics or anything else, the voice assistant would call around to local stores or use recently added data on the subject in Google’s knowledge graph to suggest places to go and things to buy. The idea was that retailers would use the feature to highlight the availability of the items people want on-hand, as well as any sales.

As going to many stores multiplies potential exposure to COVID-19, the extra information may be very welcome among Google Assistant users. And the potential userbase has grown a lot of late. Duplex arrived in New Zealand last October in a pilot program. In April, Google added Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom to Duplex’s operations.


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