Gmail Uses Machine Learning for Remarkably Human-like Smart Reply

  • 20 June 2017
  • Cas Proffitt

Have you ever wanted an assistant who could respond to all your emails just as you wish? For the vast majority of us for whom this is not a reality, Google is stepping in with something nearly as good (maybe even better, since it's free!)


Using machine learning, Gmail users are now offered text suggestions they can send in one click to reply to their emails. The suggestions aren't random, but take into account the context of the received email in order to offer several tailored responses.


This system, called Smart Reply, relies on Google's own, highly powerful neural networks.


The technology first appeared in Google inboxes in 2015, but was not readily available to all users. Although this feature received mixed feedback upon launch, more than 12% of emails sent via Google currently use Smart Reply.


We can expect to see this number grow in the coming months, because Google is now going to make this feature readily available to any user who is sending an email on mobile from iOS or Android.


With that growing number of users and guided analysis, the responses that Smart Reply offers should also become better.


Right now, the responses are situationally-dependent, and the phrasing is even altered by the relationship context users share with the sender, e.g. coworker, friend, or family member.


Right now, responses are relatively succinct, albeit accurate, grammatically correct, and human sounding.


As the neural network has more information and more user feedback, we can expect responses that contain more complexity and are more apt to say just what the user wants.


Some users are concerned about the lack of humanity in these one-touch responses, and the loss of intimacy has sometimes been described as “creepy.”


What level of emotional involvement is needed in making dinner plans or arranging a meeting? And, in the coming years, will anyone know the difference in a “non-human” response?


For example, companies like Conversica have already been sending AI-generated responses to leads, and, when I received one, I had no idea it wasn't written by a flesh and blood person.


As Seth Godin recently discussed on his blog, most of us now take part in “emotional labor” for our jobs–through responding in the most professional ways even when we don't feel like it and other similar tasks.


If applications like this can lessen the emotional strain on workers, might we see increased emotional intimacy among family and friends? What seems like a cold response may instead reserve emotional energy and allow for increased depths of happiness across the board.


What do you think? Will you use the Smart Reply feature? Is there a type of email you definitely would send a personalized response to? Let us know in the comments below!

About Cas Proffitt

Cas is a B2B Content Marketer and Brand Consultant who specializes in disruptive technology. She covers topics like artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, blockchain, and big data, to name a few. Cas is also co-owner of an esports organization and spends much of her time teaching gamers how to make a living doing what they love while bringing positivity to the gaming community.