Forward-looking: Since it was first shown off at the I/O conference earlier this year, Google's AI customer service voice assistant, Duplex, has caused both amazement and controversy. But while Google's tech is only now rolling out to a limited number of users, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba's version is already conversing with customers, and it appears more advanced than its rival's product.

At the 2018 Neural Information Processing Systems conference---an annual AI research gathering---Alibaba said its voice assistant system was already being used in millions of calls for its logistics company, Cainiao.

Jin Rong, from Alibaba's Machine Intelligence and Technology Lab, showed what the AI was capable of in a pre-recorded call, in which a customer was asked where they would like a package delivered. The conversation, which was translated from Mandarin, went like this:

Agent: Hello, I am Cainiao's voice assistant. I am---
Customer: Hello.
A: Yes, hi, you have package scheduled for morning delivery to 588 Culture West Road. Is it convenient for you to receive?
C: Who are you?
A: I am Cainiao's voice assistant. I'd like to confirm your morning delivery to 588 Culture West Road. Does that work for you?
C: I'm not home in the morning.
A: Then do you have another address that you'd like to use?

What's impressive here is that the AI managed to deal with three conversational elements that similar software struggles with: interruptions, which come at the start; nonlinear conversation, where the customer fails to answer a question and asks "who are you?;" and implicit intent---the person doesn't specifically say no to a question, but the AI understands what "I'm not home in the morning" infers.

Technology Review writes that this all suggests Alibaba's AI voice assistant is more advanced than Duplex, based on similar calls Google has demoed. With the Chinese company receiving 50,000 customer service calls each day, there's plenty of data available for training the system, which gives the firm an advantage over its competitors.

Alibaba says it plans to expand the AI voice assistant into its food ordering services, a virtual avatar that answers questions about company products, and a price-haggling chatbot. But, as is the case with so many AI technologies, there's concern over what effect it could have on jobs traditionally done by humans.