As posted on Nice! Thanks! Love it! Gmail’s auto-reply is perfect for the lazy emailer
Confusing times at Google. The company has announced it will stop automatically scanning users’ emails in order to provide targeted adverts. At almost the same moment, though, it has decided to launch an auto-reply system that scans one’s emails and generates possible responses from which you can choose.
The new functionality, added to the app store versions of Gmail, works by analysing a large, anonymised body of emails to generate possible responses. Machine-learning systems then rank these to pick the “best responses to the email at hand”.
So, could a machine do a better job at replying half-heartedly to colleagues and social invitations that me?
After downloading the app, I found that each of my emails now came with three reply suggestions. For someone forwarding me flights options to Norway, I had “Nice!” “Thanks!” and “Love it!” Exclamation marks are the bedrock of conveying feigned email interest in moments when a sender is too bored or frazzled to think of something specific to say. Could that very human blend of laziness and anxiety be learned by a machine? It appeared the machine was up for the challenge, if a bit too keen.
As machine learning starts to take a grip, the computer world is turfing up greater sophistication than we have been used to. When I received an email asking me to write this article, for instance, Gmail’s options included “Yes and yes”, a phrase specific to my own speech. Was Google mining my personality, creating an online homunculus from my linguistic tics? Not long after, my editor responded with “Great, thanks!”– a response that made it equally likely that our personal bots were playing ping-pong with each other. Was modern life about to devolve into one long Turing test?
For an email thread gossiping about a distant acquaintance, and a friend’s response (“Please tell me this was posted today. I am picturing him pacing up and down his room”), I got “What?” “Yes he did”, and “No he didn’t”. None of these worked or tallied with the universal correct answer to almost any email: a gif involving RuPaul.
Of course, Google is keen to emphasise that its system knows its limits. Not everything merits an automated response – only about one-third of emails are covered. When I was told by the son of veteran Eurosceptic MP Bill Cash: “I am no longer a member of Ukip and cannot assist you,” the system chose to remain mute. The right choice, as it happens: so did I.
Most email is unnecessary and most email responses are perfunctory acknowledgements – verbal read-receipts. In the war for control of your inbox, Gmail may have given us an important missile defence shield. Nice! Thanks! Love it!