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Google Assistant is about to get much smarter

At Google I/O, CEO Sundar Pichai and other executives explained how AI will make its voice-activated assistant better -- even making phone calls and carrying on conversations on behalf of users.

Video: Google's Assistant gets an AI upgrade with Duplex

At last year's Google I/O conference, CEO Sundar Pichai said that Google is taking an "AI-first" approach to business. This year, conference attendees are learning more about what that means.

For starters, Pichai said, it means the voice-activated, AI-powered Google Assistant is about to get smarter, more useful, and provide a richer experience. With a new feature called Google Duplex, Google Assistant will even be able to make a phone call on behalf of a user to schedule an appointment with a business -- carrying on a human-like conversation with the person on the other end of the line.

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Google Duplex "brings together all our investments over the years," Pichai said, including in areas like deep learning and text-to-speech.

Google spent years on this feature, he said, to make sure it met the expectations of users and the businesses on the receiving end of Duplex phone calls.

"Done correctly, it will save time for people and generate a lot of value for businesses," Pichai said. He noted that, in the US, 60 percent of small businesses don't have an online booking system set up.

Pichai demonstrated a phone call to book a haircut, illustrating how the Assistant even uses nuances of natural conversations, such as "um," and how it can respond to questions from the person on the other end of the line.

Read also: Google Assistant now connects to over 5,000 smart home devices

In addition to Duplex, Google announced that, as of Tuesday, Assistant will get six new voices. Google is working on getting the right languages, accents, and dialects to expand its reach. By the end of the year, Google Assistant will be available in 30 languages and 80 countries. It's accessible already on over 500 million devices.

Amazon's Alexa gained an early foothold in the nascent market for voice interfaces, debuting in 2014 -- two years earlier than Google Assistant. That's reflected in the number of devices that support their respective assistants: Last week, Google announced that Google Assistant is now available on more than 5,000 smart home devices, up from the 1,500 devices that were supported back in January. That includes everything from the Google Home to dishwashers, vacuums, and doorbells. By comparison, Amazon says Alexa works with more than 12,000 smart home devices from more than 2,000 brands.

Still, Google is pressing full steam ahead with its assistant, and the two tech giants are now competing toe-to-toe when it comes to voice-activated features and capabilities.

For instance, Google Assistant recently rolled out the ability to help you send and receive payments, beating Amazon to the punch. In February, Google Assistant gained the ability to perform multiple actions at once with only one command. And on Tuesday at I/O, Google said it's rolling out the ability for Assistant to understand multiple phrases without having to start each one with "Hey, Google." Just last month, Amazon rolled out the same feature, called "multi-turn utterances." Google on Tuesday also announced it's introducing a "kid-friendly" mode that requires a child to say "please."

Alexa's lead over Google Assistant is typically illustrated by Amazon's dominant share of the smart speaker market. Yet, looking beyond that, at integrated devices, things get more interesting, as market analyst Blake Kozak explained to CNET. In 2017, he noted, there were roughly 25 million devices sold that either worked with Alexa or featured built-in Alexa controls. With Google Assistant, that number was 20 million. On top of that, Kozak noted the wide array of Android products already on the market.