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Tuesday, June 6, 2023

How to Master Google's AI Phone Call Features

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Over the past few years, Google (perhaps sharing younger generations’ hatred of making phone calls) has been on a tear trying to fix all the worst parts of talking on the phone. In 2018, Duplex blew Google I/O attendees away by promising to make reservations for the user with a human-sounding call system. Today, the company has added a litany of handy phone-related features for some Android phones, but a few are so buried you might have missed them. Here are all the ways Google has transformed phone calls—and our take on whether you’d want to use them.

Set Up Dinner Reservations

The headline feature of Google Duplex–the ability to let Google Assistant make a reservation phone call for you–is at this point perhaps the least visible phone call feature. There’s no button you can press to start Duplex itself. Instead, you can start trying to make dinner reservations through Google Assistant, or search for things like movie tickets on the web, and if Duplex can help with that, then it will activate as part of the reservation process.

Of course, you might notice from the list of tasks that Duplex can help with–restaurant reservations, haircut appointments, movie theater visits–that they happen to include a lot of things that haven’t been much of an option for the last year or so. It took a while for industries to adapt to the existence of Duplex enough for it to be practical at all–even a year after its introduction, restaurant workers would simply hang up on Google because they thought it was spam–and by the time they did, making reservations wasn’t a regular problem for most people anymore.

So, it makes sense that you might’ve forgotten Duplex exists. It doesn’t help that restaurants can opt out of being contacted via Duplex, so not every restaurant, hair salon, or movie theater is even compatible with your AI phone assistant. A distinctly modern problem. If you get the chance to use Duplex to make reservations, it might be a fun experiment, but don’t be too surprised if the place you want to call turns Google’s robot down. That is, assuming you’re even using Assistant to make reservations in the first place.

Screen Unknown Callers

Google has a pretty robust system for identifying spam calls, so your phone will show a bright red warning whenever a spammer calls you (or, in my experience, Comcast). However, edge cases where an unrecognized number isn’t obviously spam can be nerve-wracking to pick up. So Google’s Call Screen feature can find out who it is for you without ever bothering you unless it’s important.

You can turn the feature on in the Phone app under Settings > Spam and Call Screen > Call Screen. From here, if you enable automatic call screening, then whenever you receive a phone call from certain phone numbers, your phone won’t ring and you’ll instead get a silent notification telling you that Google is currently screening a phone call.

What type of phone numbers will get screened? That’s up to you. In general, anyone in your contacts should get through, but there are four categories of calls you can screen up front: spam, “Possibly faked numbers” (presumably Google uses its fancy tech to figure this out), phone numbers that are calling you for the first time, and private or hidden numbers. For each of these categories, you can choose to either let them ring your phone (more on that option below) or screen the call and let Google automatically decline robocallers for you.

Depending on how much you make phone calls, you should weigh each of these options carefully. Google’s system isn’t perfect–as mentioned above, Google has classified legitimate phone calls from Comcast about my service as spam before–and even when it works, you can forget that you have it turned on and accidentally reject or screen a call that you should’ve taken.

In my own case, I once accidentally screened a phone call from an interview subject whose number wasn’t saved in my phone. They had never encountered Google’s call screen before, assumed they had called the wrong number, and hung up. And because my phone didn’t ring, I missed that it happened until it was too late for the interview. Your mileage may vary, but if you regularly make a lot of important phone calls, you might want to consider an alternative way to use Call Screen.

Or: Screen Phone Calls Manually

If you’d rather not hand too much control over to Google, then manual call screening is a great option. You don’t have to do anything special to activate this one. Instead, when you receive a phone call, you’ll have an additional button. On top of being able to answer or reject the call, you can ask Google to screen the call for you.

When this happens, Google will ask the person on the other end of the line to identify themselves for you. Their answer will then be transcribed into text for you, which you can read as it’s being said. The feature will offer you options for basic follow-up questions, and if it looks like the call isn’t worth your time, you can press the red hang-up option and Google will tell the other person that you’re not available before ending the call.

At any point, however, you can pick up the call and take over from Google. You’re never trapped waiting for Google to finish a sentence, and you’ll be immediately connected with the person on the other end. This is perhaps Google’s most useful calling feature, as it lets you filter out automated calls or telemarketers. While it’s still possible for legitimate callers to get confused, the feature generally explains itself well enough to the person calling you that they get how to interact with it and get through to you without too much trouble.

Let Google Stay on Hold for You

Sitting on hold is the worst. But if a customer support line is going to use an automated system to make you wait until it’s ready for you, why not use the same tactics yourself? Hold for Me is a Google phone feature that will listen to the other side of the phone call (it doesn’t listen through your microphone) and identify when a customer service agent has picked up the phone, at which point it will ring to let you know that you can continue the call.

Like manual call screening, this one is incredibly helpful without being too cumbersome to use. While the feature is holding for you, a live transcription of anything that’s said will appear on your phone. This helps make sure you don’t miss anything important, without demanding your attention. In general, it seems pretty good at figuring out when to bring you back onto the line. If, for example, the automated system needs more information from you to proceed through the support tree, your phone will also ring.

It’s also pretty easy to hop in and out of Hold for Me. The button is visible throughout the call, and you can tap it at any time to be immediately reconnected with the call, then tap it again to let Google take over. It’s best used when there are long stretches of time that you have to wait on hold. Unfortunately it still can’t navigate complicated menu trees for you. But if you’re sick of gratingly bad hold music, Hold for Me can be a lifesaver.

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