Use­ful or creepy? Ma­chines now sug­gest­ing Gmail replies

Ripon Bulletin - - Dollars & Sense/nation -

MOUN­TAIN VIEW (AP) — Google is toe­ing the line be­tween help­ing you save time and creep­ing you out as it turns to ma­chines to sug­gest email replies on your be­half.

The cus­tom­ized auto-re­sponses come in the lat­est ver­sion of Gmail on the web and ex­pand on a fea­ture al­ready avail­able on An­droid de­vices and iPhones. They’re just one more ex­am­ple of how ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence is seep­ing into ev­ery­day on­line life, whether it’s to tai­lor prod­uct rec­om­men­da­tions or cor­rect spell­ing.

So far the new fea­ture has been draw­ing mixed re­sponses from users.

The new fea­ture, called Smart Re­ply, of­fers three short re­sponses, like “It was great see­ing you too,” or “I’ll look into it.” Un­like stan­dard auto-replies when on va­ca­tion, for in­stance, these are cus­tom­ized to an in­di­vid­ual email based on its con­text. If you se­lect one, you can ei­ther send it im­me­di­ately or edit it be­fore send­ing.

The re­sponses are au­to­mat­i­cally cre­ated us­ing Google’s ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence sys­tems. Hu­mans aren’t read­ing peo­ple’s emails, but ma­chines are scan­ning them. Al­though Google stopped scan­ning email to tar­get ad­ver­tis­ing in 2017, it still scans them to fil­ter out junk mail, iden­tify phish­ing scams and, now, to cre­ate sug­gested replies. (Ya­hoo and AOL, both owned by Ver­i­zon, still scan email for ad­ver­tis­ing.)

Google’s sug­ges­tions draw on the text of your email. Google says it doesn’t an­a­lyze any­thing else, like at­tach­ments or pho­tos, even though it scans them for se­cu­rity risks. The anal­y­sis can in­clude past con­ver­sa­tions. For ex­am­ple, if some­one says “Thanks!” more of­ten than “Thanks,” with no ex­cla­ma­tion point, the sug­gested re­sponse would likely re­flect that.

Brian Lam, a San Diego at­tor­ney who fo­cuses on pri­vacy and data se­cu­rity, said au­toreplies rep­re­sent “a trade­off be­tween pri­vacy and new fea­tures that con­sumers may want.”

Google has been scan­ning Gmail since its de­but in 2004, so scan­ning for auto-replies shouldn’t come as a sur­prise. Lam said he has no con­cerns as long as com­pa­nies dis­close they are do­ing this.

“There’s a mar­ket in­cen­tive to be­have re­spon­si­bly,” he said. There’s been con­sumer back­lash when peo­ple get wind of com­pa­nies that don’t re­spect pri­vacy. Peo­ple de­cide not to use those ser­vices.”

Not ev­ery email will get sug­ges­tions — only those that Google thinks will lend them­selves to a short re­ply.

Gra­ham Gard­ner, a free­lance pho­tog­ra­pher and leather-goods maker in Min­neapo­lis, said he has used smart replies in Gmail sev­eral times over the past few months. He said the speed of re­sponse can be help­ful, par­tic­u­larly if he is on his phone and can re­ply with one tap.

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