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Smart Reply
Google’s Smart Reply feature analyzes incoming email with an encoder, then uses a decoder to craft potential replies. (Google image)

Weary of spambots, robo-calls and Twitter bots? Google is coming out with an artificial-intelligence tool that’s on your side for a change: Smart Reply, a feature that’s built into its Inbox app for Android and iOS.

Smart Reply is designed to take the thumbwork out of replying to email on a mobile device.

“I get a lot of email, and I often peek at it on the go with my phone. But replying to email on mobile is a real pain, even for short replies,” Greg Corrado, a senior research scientist at Google, writes on the company’s research blog. “What if there were a system that could automatically determine if an email was answerable with a short reply, and compose a few suitable responses that I could edit or send with just a tap?”

Corrado explains at length how Google’s engineers developed a deep neural network that analyzes incoming email and suggests short responses based on context. For example, an email inviting you to a Thanksgiving do might spark a suggested “We’ll Be There” message as well as a “Sorry, Can’t Make It” response. Just tap on the appropriate button to shoot off the reply, or edit the response to your liking.

Smart Reply
These screenshots show two situations handled by Smart Reply in Google’s Inbox app. The suggested replies are at the bottom of the frame. (Google image)

The system employs machine learning to fine-tune its suggested responses rather than using a rigid set of rules. Getting it right wasn’t easy. For example, Corrado says the first prototype tended to suggest overly similar choices for the reply.

“Another bizarre feature of our early prototype was its propensity to respond with ‘I love you’ to seemingly anything,” he writes. “As adorable as this sounds, it wasn’t really what we were hoping for. Some analysis revealed that the system was doing exactly what we’d trained it to do, generate likely responses – and it turns out that responses like ‘Thanks,’ ‘Sounds good,’ and ‘I love you’ are super common – so the system would lean on them as a safe bet if it was unsure.”

After some tweaks, Google has determined Smart Reply is smart enough to let loose on the world. This isn’t the only bot designed to help out with mobile email. My iPhone, for example, is sometimes amazingly prescient about what the next word in my message is going to be. (And sometimes it’s amazingly off-base.)

I can’t wait to see what happens when Siri hooks up with Smart Reply. Bot-fight!

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