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As tech becomes more pervasive in every facet of our lives, people willing cede things like privacy and personal info to big tech companies in exchange for the convenience, entertainment and instant gratification that social media offers. Tech giants like Facebook have been heavily criticized for trying to infiltrate parts of our lives we simply don’t want Big Brother snooping around – all in the pursuit of “personalization.” Now, Gmail is diving head first into a similar escapade with their new Smart Reply feature. Is it probably done to better help Gmail users and save time? Sure. Does that make it any less weird? No. This new feature freaks me out. Here’s why.
Recently, Gmail rolled out the new Smart Reply feature to its massive 1.4 billion active user base. In its ideal state, the Google AI is supposed to digest the content – and context – of your email thread, and suggest three different reply “boxes” with which a simple click and tap can send an automated response into the ether. It’s supposed to save people time and stress for those who struggle with words. And while I think it’s odd, the WSJ is reporting that a whopping 10% of all responses in Gmail right now are generated through Smart Reply. When you think about the sheer size of the Gmail user base, this means millions of people have already adopted the technique.
I’ll admit, the first time I saw the auto-generated prompts, I was a bit taken aback, but I did see the value in it – especially if you’re signing off or ending a conversation. But then, I started thinking about the ramifications. First and most obvious, for Google to generate these responses, it has to actively read and process every single word and every single email you’re in active correspondence with. I use my Gmail for personal work and activity, so the thought of Google knowing some of the more risque details of my email trails is a bit unnerving. It also completely rips the veil off the whole Big Brother thing as the tech giant is now actively involved in your private conversations.
If you’ve seen any videos of the Boston Dynamics robots roaming the internet, you’ll quickly realize that robots will one day overthrow us and run the world. Thankfully, they won’t be able to send a cohesive email. The majority of the auto-generated responses I’ve seen at the bottom of my emails have been close to right…but still off enough that it’s clear that someone is using a robot to answer. There’s a lack of nuance, of inside-jokes, of looking ahead in the conversation, that makes me believe that Google’s robot won’t be able to pass the “Are You a Robot” captcha test any time soon. Then again, I still struggle with clicking all of the boxes that have street signs in them…but I digress.
That said, the one thing the new feature doesn’t lack is cheeriness. It’s like someone took the personality of Elf and distilled it into a bot. I like being positive in my emails and try to shy away from passive-aggressiveness, but the sheer number of responses with exclamation points and overt cheesiness is too much to take seriously. Maybe in the next update, they’ll give the robot a bit more realism and crushing anxiety that many of us get from scrolling Twitter everyday, who knows. Cheers!.