Google Smart Reply: Rise of the Machines

Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

Although it was launched last year, Google Smart Reply didn’t come to my attention until this past May. At the bottom of an email, I noticed three boxed selections containing built-in responses. They were fairly similar to what I would’ve typed out: "Thanks!" or "Sounds good." or "Got it."

Google Smart Reply is designed to make our lives easier. If someone needs to cancel an appointment because he’s sick, not a problem—Google Smart Reply will provide three responses from which to choose:

"Oh no! Feel better!" "We will miss you!" or "Sorry to hear that."

And as Google explains, the more you take advantage of this option, the more accurate it gets: "Smart Reply utilizes machine learning to give you better responses the more you use it. So if you’re more of a ‘thanks!’ than a ‘thanks.’ person, we’ll suggest the response that’s, well, more you!"

But who’s "we"?

Google insists none of its human employees are reading your most intimate emails. "We turned to hierarchical models of language, an approach that uses hierarchies of modules, each of which can learn, remember, and recognize a sequential pattern," the company explains. (You can find a fuller explanation here.)

But even a soulless computer reading my emails gives me a sense of being spied upon. Here’s a sampling of Smart Reply suggestions found at the end of some recent emails:

"No worries, I was tired too."

"It happens to a lot of men my age."

"Thanks. I didn’t realize Simplex B was worse."

Oh, I didn’t mean some of my recent emails, just, you know, emails from other people I know.

I suspect this convenience is also how Donald Trump Jr. got himself in trouble. Examining his correspondence with Rob Goldstone, it’s clear the president’s son used Google Smart Reply and was faced with these options:


"Looking forward to our meeting."

"I love it."

Don Jr. should have selected "Okay."

As others have pointed out, this is the price we pay for free email. Google’s bots read our thoughts and share them with advertisers. Not that it’s always accurate. For example, I get tons of advertisements for certain male performance-enhancing drugs.

But convenience seems to be winning out. The number of Gmail users now opting for Smart Reply has risen to 12 percent. We need to cut this back. So do yourself a favor and disable Google Smart Reply. Because the AI is only getting smarter. Remember, it’s constantly learning. I’m not saying this is how we end up with Skynet. But it’s possible.