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Gmail Takes Ghostwriting to the Next Level — and People Already Feeling Haunted by It

The Unintended Consequences of Smart Reply

Google released its new feature Smart Reply a few months ago as a way to save people time when responding to emails. The thought was, why think of a reply when a machine can do it for you? Smart Reply offers Gmail users three short replies such as “Got it!” or “Thanks so much!” or “Best wishes!” that people can choose from, instead of coming up with their own reply.

The replies are customized based on the content of each individual email. It’s this personalization that makes the Smart Reply feature unique. The service even tailors the responses based on your personal language style. For example, if you typically reply “Thanks!” with an exclamation point, Smart Reply will offer that response instead of a “Thanks” without an explanation point.

Smart Reply and the Importance of Consent

While some Gmail users are finding the Smart Reply feature useful, others are feeling a bit disturbed. There are two main reasons people are feeling haunted by Smart Reply: lack of consent and manipulation.

While users could opt to turn off Smart Reply on their mobile devices, Google was not enabling users to turn off the feature on a desktop. And while mobile may be the preferred device for many, plenty of people are still using a desktop, especially for work email. With no choice to opt out, users had to contend with the Smart Reply suggestions when responding to each and every email.

There is also no telling how much Google is scanning your email in order to provide the Smart Reply feature. Does the introduction of Smart Reply mean that Google is scanning emails more than before? If so, is that data being stored somewhere? There is certainly something unsettling about Smart Reply essentially monitoring your every move.

The other issue is the power of suggestion and the subtle manipulation that occurs with Smart Reply. Let’s say that you already had a reply in mind, but then you saw the suggestions from Smart Reply and changed your mind. Was that really your decision? How many times had you seen the same reply suggested again and again and again? Did you really want to switch your reply or did you subconsciously feel pressured into doing so?

Exploring the Unintended Consequences of Technology (UCOT)

Being aware of the power of suggestion helps, but then you have to contend with the mental focus required of you to remain aware of the subtle manipulation of the Smart Reply feature. It may seem like it’s no big deal, it’s just a reply, but some of the replies have an informality to them that affect people’s professionalism without them fully realizing it. An employer may even think that it is rude to receive a clearly automated reply to a professional email.

These are the small unintended consequences of technology that many people fail to consider.

Another effect has been the eerie realization that when you receive a reply, you no longer know if the response was written by the sender or the machine or a combination of both. With so much disconnect already happening as a result of technology, Smart Reply adds yet another layer to taking humanity out of how we communicate with each other.

At least the unintended consequences of technology are not all doom and gloom. Some of the adverse effects of Smart Reply have been quite humorous. For example, in an early prototype, the feature tended to suggest “I love you” to almost any email. That may be an appropriate reply to your spouse, but certainly not your boss — and you wouldn’t want to choose that reply by accident and then hit send (unless you really, really love your boss).

Another bug that needed to be fixed was the propensity of the feature to suggest “sent from my iPhone” as a reply. Fortunately, the machine learning technology becomes more refined the more you use it and will begin to more closely mimic your own personal tone and style.

People have even begun doing experiments with the Smart Reply feature, with all sorts of mixed results. In a few experiments, people opted to use only the Smart Reply feature for a week. They saw the feature become more customized, but sometimes that customization wasn’t a good thing. For example, if you are someone who tends to be a bit sassy or sarcastic, you don’t want those types of replies showing up as options for professional emails.

Smart Reply is like having a parrot who then infiltrates your Gmail account.

Taking Smart Reply One Step Further

Despite some of the unintended consequences of the technology, Google is offering a feature that is a whole other level compared to Smart Reply. If you thought it was convenient to automate your replies, how about automating entire emails? Smart Compose offers suggestions to complete your sentences in real time as you are typing your emails.

The machine learning is incredibly accurate and sophisticated, but Smart Compose comes with all the same issues as Smart Reply. And again the user experience results are a mixed bag, with some users finding the feature useful and time-saving and others finding it hauntingly annoying. At least Google learned from the mistakes with Smart Reply and Gmail users are able to turn off the Smart Compose feature in their settings. If you don’t want to use it, you don’t have to. The choice is yours.

Exploring the unintended consequences of technology like Smart Reply and Smart Compose is important for ensuring that humans continue to have choice and control over their interactions in an ever-increasing digital world. It is the goal of UCOT to address and solve these problems before they manifest into much bigger issues. If you’d like to be part of the movement, you are welcome to join our community of UCOT Solvers.

We are a community of thinkers and doers with a mission to bring awareness and solutions to the unintended consequences of technology. The first UCOT conference is October 29-30 at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. Get tickets and more information about UCOT 2018 here: https://helloucot.com/

“Thanks for reading!” “Have a great day!” “Best wishes!”

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