Some believe that email is bloated and dying, but by implementing advances from its machine learning and AI teams, Google has been using Inbox — its Gmail-based mobile email client — as a way to raise the bar on how to improve the experience and make it once again into a productive place to communicate with people. Today, the company is taking the wraps off its latest feature: Smart Reply, a way for Inbox to craft automatic responses for you.
Google says that the feature, which is due to launch later this week, will work like this: when you receive an email, Smart Reply will “read” the content of it and select three basic responses at the bottom of the screen for a quick response.
“And for those emails that require a bit more thought, it gives you a jump start so you can respond right away,” writes Bálint Miklós, a software engineer at Google who worked on the service. That jump start comes in the form of the short phrases that Inbox suggests at the bottom of the screen for the automatic reply, which then become the start of your response.
The app also “learns” as you use it. So, if you never choose, “Yes, please send me more information!” when replying to a particular person who is pitching you a suggestion for something in an email, it’s unlikely to keep appearing as an option when that person writes again (and again, and again).
There have been a lot of apps that have come out to try to make slogging through your inbox easier, but perhaps most of all Smart Reply reminds me of TL;DR, a little app from one of the co-founders of the now-defunct Android launcher Everything.me, which also set out to make email more like messaging by shortening the steps it took to reply to messages by offering suggestions of how to reply.
In both the case of that app and Smart Reply, the pain point is a well-known one: it’s actually kind of a pain to type on smartphones for most people and so creating ways to circumvent this as much as possible makes a lot of sense.
It’s also another step along the gradual evolution in how mobile apps are becoming more predictive. Other obvious examples in this vein are services like Siri from Apple or Google Now, or even LinkedIn’s apps that suggest information about contacts as they enter your vicinity. The bigger idea here is not just that apps are getting easier to use because we have less to input on their small screens, but they are becoming more intelligent and able to act as helpful assistants in our life.
This is partly a practical move on the part of developers: the more crowded our phones get with apps, the less likely we are to open the ones that are difficult to use. But it’s also a sign of how it’s likely all apps will evolve over time.
Google has over the years built up a massive team of people working in areas like machine learning, natural language processing and artificial intelligence to build out features in search, mobile and many of its applications.
And in that vein, Smart Reply is not the first feature in Inbox — which was opened up to all users in May 2015 — that relies on those technologies. Google also pushes to-do reminders, helps organize trips, and offers “assists” — small nudges of what you should do next while in the app. In the case of Smart Reply, Google engineers have built the feature using deep neural networks, which are also the basis of improvements in Google’s voice search and the thumbnails on YouTube. You can read more about the mechanics behind Smart Reply here.