January 20, 2019

The Problem with Gmail Smart Replies

“I don’t use the phrase “Will do!” much in daily conversation, but lately it has been creeping into more and more of my e-mails. An editor asks me to get a draft back to her tomorrow? Will do! A friend heading back to Los Angeles from New York sends me a quick note telling me to enjoy living in the “best city in the world.” Will do! The hosts of a panel I’m moderating need me to send over a three-line bio? Will do!

“Will do!” is just one of many Smart Replies that Google now provides as a default feature in Gmail, there to assist you in your message composition unless you choose to manually turn them off. In October, the e-mail service, which one analytics firm suggests hosts about a quarter of all the e-mails sent worldwide, made this feature standard on its 1.4 billion active accounts, along with a menu of other innovations. These include Smart Compose, a feature that finishes your sentences for you with the help of robot intelligence, and Nudges, a feature that bumps unanswered e-mails to the top of your in-box, making you feel increasingly guilty with every sign-in.

As with many technological updates that are suddenly imposed on unsuspecting users, the new Gmail interface has been met with much annoyance. When my in-box started offering me Smart Replies, I felt a little offended. How dare it guess what I want to say, I thought. I—a professional writer!—have more to offer than just “Got it!” or “Love it!” or “Thanks for letting me know!” (Smart Replies are big on exclamation points.) I started to resent the A.I., which seemed to be learning my speech patterns faster than I could outsmart it. Just as I decided that I’d thwart the machine mind by answering my messages with “Cool!” (side note: it is hard to sound like anything but a Dad Trying to Be Hip over e-mail, even without robotic intervention), the service started offering me several “Cool” varietals. Suddenly, I could answer with “Sounds cool” or “Cool, thanks” or the dreaded “Cool, I’ll check it out!” (Spoiler: I’m not going to check it out.)”

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