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Google invented the AI version of a Hallmark card

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Gmail’s Smart Replies automate messages, but that’s not a new idea

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

I don’t have the time, energy, or attention span to give every email a thoughtful reply.

It’s a problem Google has been trying to solve with a Gmail feature called Smart Replies, the automatically generated, prewritten responses that pop up when you’re composing an email. But I worry these simple responses will make us lazy and our language homogeneous. Email’s terrible, but do I now need to worry about it destroying language and cratering our relationships, too?

Most short email responses aren’t carefully written as it is, so we aren’t exactly losing out on poetry, says Naomi Baron, a professor of linguistics emerita at American University and author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World. “We like to assume that we’re more creative than we actually are,” she says.

When you’re reading an email in Gmail, Google’s Smart Replies presents three short sentences you can shoot back in response that are usually as simple as, “Thanks, I’ll check it out,” or “Haha, thanks!” The replies are based on each individual user’s writing style, as determined by machine learning. So if you prefer an exclamation point at the end of sentences, Google should be able to figure that out.

We frequently use the same words and phrases, so it shouldn’t be hard for AI to pick up on the way we like to speak, says David Crystal, a linguist and honorary professor at the University of Wales, Bangor. “Everyone has favorite expressions — the basis of a person’s style,” he writes me over email. “I can easily imagine AI noting these and presenting them to the user.”

There’s already precedent for this kind of personalized text recommendation, both Crystal and Baron point out. Modern phones all suggest words as you’re texting to save you from having to type out letters, and most of us wouldn’t want to go back to a world without it.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

It isn’t that different from greeting cards, either, Baron says. Like cards, Smart Replies offers a simple message tailored to a certain context. Writers can leave the message as is if they feel it’s expressed their sentiment, or they expand on it.

“Greeting cards were beautiful with nothing inside [for many years],” Baron says. “But we realized we could print the cards and put messages inside so people didn’t have to figure out for themselves what an appropriate message [might be].”

These short replies have me covered for something as simple as lunch plans, letting my brain momentarily turn on autopilot, but I still worry that Smart Replies will encourage us to write less and lean on pre-formatted responses instead of our own spontaneous expressions.

It’s an “overstatement” to say that humans will start delegating all their writing to software, Crystal says. But he is concerned that software could get too carried away with correcting us and says that it should still allow for choice and creativity.

“I would worry if the AI writers become pedantic,” he writes, “much as the pedants at [Microsoft] Word have already done with their flagging up warnings about the passive, and so on.”

Baron isn’t as worried, particularly for people who already use email for business purposes and want to get straight to the point. “You’re not looking to show that you’re the next Marcel Proust in saying, ‘yes,’” she says. “If that’s the kind of reply you’re doing, then these are harmless.”

However, there could be reason for concern if Smart Replies discourages people who typically have fun with their writing to stop, Baron says.

“If, on the other hand, you’re the person who has been more mindful and thoughtful and creative in your replies and then stops being that way because there’s this simple way to think, then I’m unhappy,” she says. “The majority of people using smart reply for functions like short message responses really are not going to lose their writing flair.”

Email’s a chore rather than an enjoyable activity, and so Baron’s convinced me not to fret too much about these prewritten responses. If Smart Replies can get me in and out of the horrible place that is my Gmail inbox, why not let it?