If you’re a regular Gmail user, you might have already seen how Google is using their AI to help save you time when it comes to answering your emails if you’ve been using their Inbox. Now, with the latest roll-out of changes to their standard browser-based Gmail, the feature is being seeing in the wild everywhere.

The machine answers aren’t sent automatically, but Google’s AI will recognise certain things in an incoming email, and if appropriate, make up to 3 suggestions for possible responses that you can use as is, or as starting points that you can edit and add text to as you like.

It doesn’t offer possible replies for all emails, and it can recognise, for example, mailing list emails or spam messages, and won’t suggest replies to those. But emails from a real person will often have the option to simply click on a suggested response, and then either add to it, or just click send. The image below is taken from a private mail, in which the person sending me the mail asked a question, and offered their sympathy. These were the smart responses Gmail offered as options.

Gmail Smart Response

Here’s another one, for replying to an answered request for a quote:

Neural Networks In Action

The smart responses are controlled by Google’s neural networks, which are algorithms that learn through training. According to a senior researcher on the Google Brain team, “the first decision is made by an artificial neural network very much like the ones we use for spam classification and separating promotional emails from personal ones. Our network has been trained to predict whether this is an email someone might write a brief reply to.”

The next step is for Smart Reply to generate 3 options of one-click responses which show up in the reply field. Clicking on one will auto-populate the reply box with that message.

It’s still far from perfect, (for example, it can’t recognise a binary choice and supply a a reply for each option), but it’s already very good, and according to the team, their test version (which has no restrictions on what it can say) is much better than the live version. However, because of the risk of it suggesting something inappropriate, they can’t implement that yet.

Not Reading Your Mail…Sorta

Google has assured users that no human is seeing the email you receive, but their algorithm has been scanning your emails for a long time already (to help deliver Gmail ads), and it is the algorithm that scans a message, decides whether it can be answered shortly, and formulates 3 possible responses.

“Part of the reason machine intelligence is so exciting right now is because the ideas and principles apply very generally, even when the detailed system does not,” Corrado says. “The research ideas behind Smart Reply were originally conceived of to improve machine translation, not to power an automated email responder.”

“Smart Reply doesn’t tie information to individual contacts or learn about individual behavior,” Corrado says. “Style matching is an active area of artificial intelligence research, but personalization at the level of an individual user’s style isn’t something we have incorporated into Smart Reply—at least not yet.”