What does it mean that Google can now respond to your emails?

Google is about to release a feature that will automatically reply to emails for you. Is it time to delegate more routine tasks to machines?

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
This Oct. 20, 2015 photo shows signage outside Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

Something is reading all your emails to recognize your voice, and it’s not the government: it’s Google. In a new system that will be released later this week, Google can now automatically reply to your emails so you don’t have to.

The new system is known as “Smart Reply.” Using machine-learning technology that reads through and attempts to adapt its tone to a user’s unique voice, Smart Reply suggests up to three responses to emails that require quick responses. For emails that require a more thoughtful response, Smart Reply provides the beginning of a reply.

The feature is the latest in an effort on Google’s part to harness its massive capacity for machine learning. The idea is to delegate the everyday human “mundane tasks” to computers. Smart Reply uses a “neural network” to learn information about how to write in the tone a user might write in.

Smart Reply isn’t the first system to use machine learning. Earlier this year, Google applied the neural network to voice search and YouTube thumbnails. By teaching the program to scan through hundreds of similar images, or sounds, the program then “learns” what the particular image or sound is. It can recognize the sound of your dog barking or images of your friends online, but it can’t analyze that sound or that face. And Google's flagship search engine has utilized machine learning for years.

Smart Reply will be making its appearance as part of the company's Inbox app later this week on Google Play and the App Store. The new feature will be available to everyone with Gmail Inbox accounts, as well as over two million businesses using Google’s work applications.

But the new feature isn’t without constraints. 

Machine-learning systems' “understanding of the world” are “rudimentary,” Andrew Ng, chief scientist at Chinese Internet company Baidu, says. “Humans learn about the world in all sorts of ways we can’t yet duplicate," Mr. Ng added.

Smart Reply’s responses are short and may not always be what you want to say (hence the three options to respond). Nor can Smart Reply respond to a breakup-up email, or a love letter, or a complicated work matter. In other words, Smart Reply can read and write in facts, but when it comes to actual human emotion, it’s a no-go, unsurprisingly.

Google isn’t the first to come out with this technology. Personalized robots like Jibo and “office assistants” like Amy are already using computers to respond to emails.

And it's only Google's latest project that relies on artificial intelligence. Google’s six-year-old project to develop automatic self-driving cars is still in the works. So is its intelligence program called “RankBrain” that will rank influential Internet giants. And just last week, Google X announced it would begin Project Loon, bringing the Internet to Indonesia’s 17,000 islands via inflatable balloons.

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