Eyes Above The Waves

Robert O'Callahan. Christian. Repatriate Kiwi. Hacker.

Sunday 16 September 2018

The Danger Of GMail's "Smart Replies"

At first I was annoyed by GMail's "Smart Reply" buttons because they represent a temptation to delegate (more) shaping of my human interactions to Google's AI ... a temptation that, for some reason known only to Google, can be disabled in the GMail mobile app but not the desktop Web client. I do not want the words I use to communicate, or the words others use to communicate to me, to be shaped by the suggestions of an algorithm that is most likely opaque even to its masters, let alone a mere consumer like me.

I just realized, though, that they're potentially a lot worse than that. I got an email suggesting I take an action, and the suggested "smart replies" are:

  • Sounds like a good idea.
  • I like that idea.
  • Yes, I agree.
But ... what if I don't agree? Does showing me only positive responses actually prime my brain to make me more likely to agree? Is it possible to tweak the wording of an email to ensure the algorithm produces responses of a particular type? (Probably.) More importantly, did anyone at Google actually consider and study such effects before rolling out this feature? Or did the team just roll out the feature, collect the bonus, and move on? If they did study it, are the results public and what were they? Wouldn't it be wise to require this kind of study and disclosure before subtly interfering with the cognitive processes of hundreds of millions of people?

For now I'm switching back to GMail Classic, and when (I assume) Google forces the new UI on me anyway, the path of least resistance will be to use a Firefox extension to block the Smart Reply buttons (yay Web!). Of course hundreds of millions of people will unwittingly submit to Google's reckless mental meddling.


David Leunen
Hi Robert, What extension do you use ? Thank you.