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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

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker

Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates

A teacher prepares a hallway barrier to help students maintain social distancing at John B. Wright Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, on Aug. 14, 2020. Photo: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) filed a lawsuit Friday against the Biden administration for ordering the state to stop allocating federal COVID relief funds to schools that don't comply with public health recommendations such as masking, the Arizona Republic reports.

Why it matters: The Treasury Department said last week that the state would have to pay back the money if Ducey does not redesignate the $173 million programs to ensure they don't "undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19."

Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers

President Biden speaking from Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Jan. 21. Photo: Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal judge in Texas blocked the Biden administration from enforcing its coronavirus vaccine mandate for federal workers on Friday, citing the outcome of last week's Supreme Court ruling that nullified the administration's vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

Why it matters: It's a blow to President Biden's efforts to increase the U.S.' vaccination rates, though much of the federal workforce has already been vaccinated against the virus.