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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Google made headlines by demonstrating an AI-powered voice assistant that made haircut and restaurant reservations, without betraying that it isn't human. But we have questions about the demos, which purported to be recordings of calls with real businesses.

Why it matters: Google told both developers and investors that it has created something remarkable, thus increasing its profile and value. When questioned further, however, it will not provide basic evidence to back up its boasts.

Here's the demo, as presented at Google's developer conference by CEO Sundar Pichai:

"What you're going to hear is the Google assistant actually calling a real salon to schedule an appointment for you. Let's listen."
What's suspicious?

When you call a business, the person picking up the phone almost always identifies the business itself (and sometimes gives their own name as well). But that didn't happen when the Google assistant called these "real" businesses:

  • When the hair salon picks up, a woman says: "Hello, how can I help you?"
  • When the restaurant picks up, a woman says: "Hi, may I help you?"

Axios called over two dozen hair salons and restaurants — including some in Google's hometown of Mountain View — and every one immediately gave the business name.

There also does not seem to be ambient noise in either recording, such as hair dryers or plates clattering. We heard that in most of the businesses we called, but not in all.

Finally, neither the hair salon nor the restaurant ask for the customer's phone number or any other contact information.

Google's reply

Axios asked Google for the name of the hair salon or restaurant, in order to verify both that the businesses exist and that the calls were not pre-planned. We also said that we'd guarantee, in writing, not to publicly identify either establishment (so as to prevent them from receiving unwanted attention).

A longtime Google spokeswoman declined to provide either name.

We also asked if either call was edited, even perhaps just cutting the second or two when the business identifies itself. And, if so, were there other edits? The spokeswoman declined comment, but said she'd check and get back to us. She didn't.

So we sent a new message, this time also copying another member of Google's communications team. The spokeswoman replied by saying she'd get right back to us.

That was more than a day ago.

Bottom line: Google may well have created a lifelike voice assistant that we'll all eventually use to complete mundane tasks like appointment scheduling. It also might be close to creating such a thing, but not quite there yet. Or it was partially staged. Or something else entirely. We just don't know, because Google won't answer the questions.

Go deeper

VA first federal agency to require COVID vaccines for employees

A medical doctor gives the thumbs-up sign to a COVID-19 patient who is no longer using a respirator at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in New York City. Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

The Department of Veterans Affairs said Monday it would require its frontline health care workers to get vaccinated against the coronavirus within the next two months, the New York Times reports.

Why it matters: The VA is the first federal agency to mandate that employees receive the vaccine. The decision comes as cases of the Delta variant in the U.S. have increased dramatically.

3 hours ago - Health

Biden: Americans with long-COVID symptoms may qualify for disability resources

President Biden speaking in Arlington, Virginia, on July 23. Photo: Oliver Contreras/Sipa/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Americans experiencing long-term symptoms of COVID-19 may qualify for disability resources from the federal government, President Biden announced Monday during an event to mark the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Driving the news: The departments of Justice and Health and Human Services released new guidance Monday that categorizes “long COVID" as a physical or mental impairment, entitling people with the illness to discrimination protections under the the ADA.

Study: Get ready for many more record-shattering heatwaves

NASA computer model image of temperature departures from average on June 27 during the Pacific Northwest heat wave. (NASA Earth Observatory)

The recent deadly heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, during which all-time temperature records were shattered by several degrees, is a prologue to what is coming across much of the U.S., Europe and Asia, a new study finds.

Why it matters: The study shows that the rate of climate change is an under-appreciated driver of extreme heat, and that today's quickening pace of warming virtually guarantees more extreme temperature records in coming decades.