Ever open your email to find a slew of unread messages so you consider hiding under your desk or sending out an SOS until they answer themselves? A personal assistant would be nice, but a more realistic option? Have a robot answer them for you.
Google’s Inbox app is kind of like having a personal assistant, but you don’t have to buy it coffee. Launched over a year ago, now Google is making the app even more like an assistant with its latest feature, Smart Reply.
The Smart Reply feature works like the predictive text in your keyboard, but instead of just words, it predicts phrases you’re most likely to use when replying to messages.
The system is built on a pair of neural networks—One used to encode the incoming email and one to predict possible responses.
The encoding network interprets the words of the incoming email one at a time, and produces a “thought vector.” The network gets the gist of what is being said without giving too much thought to diction. For example, “Are you free tomorrow?” and “Does tomorrow work for you?” should have similar vectors because both phrases share similar meaning.
The second network then takes these thought vectors and generates a reply one word at a time, typing it out. Smart Reply offers up three short responses based on the message and how you’ve responded to similar emails in the past. The problem is, this feature will probably only work on emails that require a quick reply, because the responses offered are typically only three-word sentences. (Don’t be offended when someone’s being short with you, it’s just the AI talking.)
So what about lengthy emails (because wouldn’t it be nice if all emails from your boss could be answered with just a word or two)? Google chose to use a variant of a “long short-term memory” network, meaning that the system can focus on the part of the incoming email that is most useful in predicting a response, and ignore the less relevant sentences before and after. Of course, this could be problematic. But that’s why Google also gives you the option to send a reply yourself.
It’s easy to get angry at AI systems when they don’t understand us (we’re sorry for yelling, Siri), but be patient with Smart Reply. Google’s machine learning algorithms learn from scratch by reading your emails and responses (kind of creepy) and slowly gets better and better at predicting what kind of responses match up with what kind of emails.
As for me, I think I’m the only dinosaur still using Outlook, so it looks like I’ll have to keep manually responding to my boss’s emails for now.