Sunday October 29, 2017

Would you let a robot answer your emails?

Google's Smart Reply learns to write in your voice to help you automatically compose emails.

Google's Smart Reply learns to write in your voice to help you automatically compose emails.

Listen 8:28

We talk a lot about robots taking our jobs, but usually we mean it figuratively — computer systems and robotics making a job redundant by improving efficiency.

But as AI has improved, researchers have turned their attention to teaching bots to take on distinctly human traits. Sometimes that means even taking on the traits of a specific human.

A few years ago an AI system was trained to create new art in the style of famous painters like Van Gogh or Edvard Munch. The bots were able to figure out what made those artists distinct, and apply them to new creations.

In May, Google brought that idea into the workplace with their Smart Reply tool. Smart Reply offers several pre-written options when you reply to an email. But it does more than suggest stock responses to your emails. The tool looks at your writing, and over time tries to adapt to your voice.

Mike Brown

Mike Brown challenged himself to answer all his email with Google's Smart Reply tool. (Inverse.com)

Mike Brown is a technology writer for Inverse.com. To see how effective the tool is, Mike used Smart Reply to draft all his email for a week.

"I kind of assumed it would be a tool that would work in very specific circumstances," Mike says. "But it worked a lot better than that. It was a lot more impressive than I expected. I found myself using it all the time to respond to people in situations that I really didn't think it going to be able to handle."

"It captured my voice in a way that people couldn't tell if it was me responding to them," he says. "I emailed with a friend about weekend plans, for example, and one of the suggested replies was, 'brilliant', so I just hit that. Sent it. And we talked about it later on and she said 'I had no idea because you say brilliant all the time'."


(Google Research Blog)


The idea of template messages were even used in the early days of text messaging, but, Mike says, "you kind of forget sometimes how far these things have progressed over such a short space of time. And it did kind of make me think, maybe I really should give all these different systems another chance. It felt slightly insincere responding to people with these canned replies. They were replies composed by a computer, which kind of felt like I wasn't really putting in the effort anymore. With Google Smart Reply, you're still responding to somebody. You're still telling them exactly what you want to say to them. If it takes less time, is it really such a bad thing?"