My Week on Google’s Smart Reply

Sam Grobart tests the company’s new auto e-mail generator.

Dear friends, family, and colleagues,

I need to explain myself. For the past week, I may have seemed short, or even a bit odd, over e-mail. It’s not you, it’s me. Actually, it’s not me, it’s Google.

Recently, the company added Smart Reply to its desktop Inbox service, which sorts e-mails into relevant batches for you. When you get certain messages, Google offers up prewritten answers. You click on one of three suggestions, hit Send, and you’re done.

“That’s what I thought!”
“That’s what I thought!”
Photographer: Caroline Tompkins For Bloomberg Businessweek

I decided to use Smart Reply—and only Smart Reply—for a week. It meant surrendering my voice to Google’s, which was sometimes an odd fit. Dad, when you told me you were having an angiogram, you may have found my response of “Good luck!” a bit brusque for the occasion. On the other hand, when I agreed with you, Emily, by writing, “That’s what I thought!” it was what I thought. It was also what Google suggested.

Smart Reply may seem like an insignificant shortcut, but it marks the start of our robot overlords’ reign. The responses Google generates aren’t random—nor are they the product of a simple rules-based equation in which a search for certain words generates a corresponding reply. How do I know this? I e-mailed the company and asked to talk to someone (on the phone, so I could be sure it was a human) about how it works. The human was Greg Corrado, senior research scientist at Google Brain, whose department developed the feature, at first just for Inbox’s mobile app. “It learns by example,” he told me. “It learns to mimic behavior that we demonstrate for it.”

Smart Reply understands the content of the message you’ve received, as well as its tone. When I replied to friends and family, my canned responses often had a cheery exclamation point (“Great! Can’t wait!”). When I replied to someone less familiar, Smart Reply was more sober: “That sounds good. Thank you.”

“Good luck!”
“Good luck!”
Photographer: Caroline Tompkins For Bloomberg Businessweek

On some level, I’ve betrayed you. You took the time to write, and all I did was roll my mouse around. Fortunately, none of you seemed to detect the outsourcing of our correspondence, though I’m not sure what that says about your ability to pass a Turing test. Alyssa, after I said that lunch “Sounds great!” you suggested some dates. Unfortunately, Smart Reply countered with “Great! Does 6:30 p.m. work?” (Google’s still working out some kinks.) Even though I like the idea of Spanish-influenced meal times, 6:30 was beyond my Iberian aspirations. I handled that one manually.

But people, I must confess: When appropriate, I’m going to keep using Smart Reply, mostly because the Google man is right. “A lot of e-mail is not something you should put a lot of thought into,” Corrado said. “Putting efficiency into those messages so you can get that time back to put into e-mails you actually need to put thought into—or, better yet, do something other than write e-mails—sounded good to us.” Indeed. That sounds good. Thank you.

Love,
Sam

 

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