Useful or creepy? Machines suggest Gmail replies

Useful or creepy? Machines suggest Gmail replies
This March 20, 2018, file photo shows the Gmail app on an iPad in Baltimore. Google is toeing the line between helping you save time and creeping you out as it turns to machines to suggest email replies on your behalf. The customized auto-responses come in the latest version of Gmail on the web and expand on a feature already available on Android devices and iPhones. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Google is toeing the line between helping you save time and creeping you out as it turns to machines to suggest email replies on your behalf.

The customized auto-responses come in the latest version of Gmail on the web and expand on a feature already available on Android devices and iPhones. They're just one more example of how is seeping into everyday online life, whether it's to tailor product recommendations or correct spelling.

So far the new feature has been drawing mixed responses from users.

The new feature, called Smart Reply, offers three short responses, like "It was great seeing you too," or "I'll look into it." Unlike standard auto-replies when on vacation, for instance, these are customized to an individual based on its context. If you select one, you can either send it immediately or edit it before sending.

The responses are automatically created using Google's . Humans aren't reading people's emails, but machines are scanning them. Although Google stopped scanning email to target advertising in 2017, it still scans them to filter out junk mail, identify phishing scams and, now, to create suggested replies. (Yahoo and AOL, both owned by Verizon, still scan email for advertising.)

Google's suggestions draw on what's in your email, such as the text of the message and the subject line. The analysis can include past conversations. For example, if someone says "Thanks!" more often than "Thanks," with no exclamation point, the suggested response would likely reflect that.

It's not known, though, how far Google goes in scanning your email. For instance, Gmail scans attachments for security risks, but is it also using that information to customize responses? The machines behind Google Photos can tell whether an image has food, flowers or the beach. Might Gmail suggest, "How was lunch?" Google didn't respond to a query for details on what it scans for replies.

Brian Lam, a San Diego attorney who focuses on privacy and data security, said auto-replies represent "a tradeoff between privacy and that consumers may want."

Useful or creepy? Machines suggest Gmail replies
This Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018, photo shows three Gmail automated response options for an email on an iPhone in New York. Google has begun suggesting auto-responses to emails such as these as the latest version of Gmail rolls out on web browsers. It's something Google has already offered on its apps for Android devices and iPhones. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane)

Google has been scanning Gmail since its debut in 2004, so scanning for auto-replies shouldn't come as a surprise. Lam said he has no concerns as long as companies disclose they are doing this.

"There's a market incentive to behave responsibly," he said. There's been consumer backlash when people get wind of companies that don't respect privacy. People decide not to use those services."

Not every email will get suggestions—only those that Google thinks will lend themselves to a short reply.

Graham Gardner, a freelance photographer and leather-goods maker in Minneapolis, said he has used smart replies in Gmail several times over the past few months. He said the speed of response can be helpful, particularly if he is on his phone and can reply with one tap.

"It can help with quick replies that don't need too much elaboration, so you can have peace of mind quickly and sort out more specific information in a full reply later," he said.

But Maya Castro, an assignment editor for a TV station in San Francisco, said she sticks to her own voice when emailing, even though she's OK with auto-responses for text messages and Facebook chats.

"It boils down to tone and mood," she said. "Smart- or auto-responses show a lack of thought."

To disable the "Smart Reply" feature on a mobile device, simply go to "Settings" and uncheck the box next to "Smart Reply." But for now, there's no way to disable the feature on the web. However, users can return to the "classic" version of Gmail on the web by selecting that option under "Settings."

Suggesting responses isn't the only way Google uses artificial intelligence to help people manage their emails, as it has been rolling out a new version of Gmail since April. The new Gmail has "Nudges," a feature that reminds users to reply to emails it deems important. Gmail also prods users who forget to include an attachment to an email that uses the word "attached" or something similar.

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User comments

Aug 31, 2018
Google, Facebook, all the same.

Last year: Google to stop scanning Gmail for ad targeting.

Just wait for the bots filling your mailbox, if a glitch happens. Getting into conversation back and forth, triggered by the first auto reply. By morning, you may need to empty you mailbox of 1000000 messages.

A second thought, what are the chances for Google to stop scanning Gmail for ad targeting? We will hear back in two years, that they are planning for it!

Aug 31, 2018
"It boils down to tone and mood," she said. "Smart- or auto-responses show a lack of thought."

-Thats today. 'Personal digital assistant' will soon have a whole new meaning as we begin to relinquish every day interaction to avatars that have known us since birth and who can emulate us flawlessly.

Manage our money, buy what we need, even do our jobs for us - we will soon learn that these things can live our lives far better than we can. And further, the unassisted, unaugmented, unpartnered person wont be able to keep up.

These metapersonalities will of course be interconnected with the singularity. This is how we disappear.

Aug 31, 2018
Eventually we'll get to the point where the machines will just send each other automated emails and leave the humans alone. If we can then reroute all the spam/ad mails to the machines it's win-win.

Aug 31, 2018
Thing is, our metapersonalities will be far better at doing everything than we are. We will be constantly refining and reprogramming them by recognizing our own faults and removing them from our better selves. They will also be doing the same. And we will rely on them for the consistency and stability that we dont have but always want.

Ever watch a tv soap? Everybody knows exactly the right thing to say at exactly the right time. 'Gee I wish I could do that' we say, rather than 'I should have said, why didnt I think of that', etc.

These inter-PDA conversations will soon progress far beyond our ability to personally take part in them. But if we try to interact personally with a metapersonality we will always lose, and so we will have no choice.

Only Tony stark can tell Jarvis what to do.

Aug 31, 2018
Metapersonalities will have our emotions and our feelings and our ethics, but the difference is, they won't be allowed to get in the way. They wont be allowed to keep our machine selves from being the best that we ourselves want to be.

The PDA will have our emotions but they will be feigned, not real. In this regard they will be psychopathic versions of us.

"Psychopaths seem to have in abundance the very traits most desired by normal persons. The untroubled self-confidence of the psychopath seems almost like an impossible dream and is generally what "normal" people seek to acquire when they attend assertiveness training classes." [or scientology sessions]

"Psychopaths not only learn to use the words more or less appropriately, they learn to pantomime the feeling. But they never HAVE the feeling."

Aug 31, 2018
The whole stark/jarvis/ultron/vision story is a discussion of this potential. Stark creates Jarvis, his PDA metapersonality, in many ways an improved version of pepper potts (did she ever realize this?) Stark gives Jarvis a few critical upgrades and out pops the independent, malevolent metapersonality Ultron with the psychopathic desire to remake the entire world in his own image.

So stark creates the anti-ultron metapersonality Vision with all of stark/Ultron qualities and none of their faults, and Vision is so morally perfect he can not only win the heart of the beautiful witch and wield the Mind stone, but lift the asgardians hammer as well.

If only we could create versions of ourselves this good. Or bad.

BTW Ultron of course loses but the spader/reddington metapersonality psychopath goes on to fuck up many minds and the entire FBI - but that's another story.

Aug 31, 2018
you "walk the line" between two options, you do not "tow the line".

Sep 07, 2018
It is a good news for those who are very much busy with their work and don't have enough time to give the reply to each and every email. Every day I received lots of emails on my hp support assistant website for different types of the quarry but I can't reply to them all. But now I think I can reply most of them.

Sep 07, 2018
Being able to do something is not the same as having a good reason to do that something.

Oct 03, 2018
for some point its good but it causes the loss of artificial intelligence

Oct 04, 2018
Eing capable of doing something is not a good reason to do something like that.

Oct 08, 2018

create gmail account and update apps use new version
for some point its good.

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