Firing Gmail’s Composition Genie

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I have been using Gmail for my personal account for more than a dozen years. I managed to snare a simple address — garyborders@gmail.com — and have used it for personal business, while maintaining a separate address for work. As with all computer applications, Gmail gets updated on occasion, sometimes requiring me to get used to a different appearance or a slightly different way of finding emails.

For several months, a button appeared in the top right of the screen: Try the New Gmail. I ignored it, content with the old Gmail. I have enough technology issues to confront without voluntarily taking on another learning curve, no matter how gentle the arc. Then one day, my Gmail had changed on its own. Apparently, the gurus at Alphabet — the behemoth company that owns Google, Gmail, YouTube and many other companies, and has become the Walmart of the Internet — decided it was time for me to update to the new Gmail.

I’m sure there is a way to revert back to the old Gmail, but that would require more time than I was willing to devote. The new Gmail is more colorful in a

ppearance. If one does not respond to an email, a reminder nudge pops up asking if I want to reply: Received 8 days ago. Reply? This can be both helpful and annoying. I don’t like being made to feel guilty by an email program, so I either reply or delete.

The whiz-bang feature that Gmail is apparently proudest of is called Smart Compose. When drafting an email, the program suggests complete sentences. For example, I just typed “It’s good to hear” and in gray type the Gmail genie added “from you.” Hitting the tab button adds the suggestion. If I ignore the prompt and continue typing, the suggestion disappears. The genie even knows the date. In Gmail, I wrote “Hope you have a Happy”

and “Thanksgiving” popped up, since I was writing this the day before Turkey Day.

Smart Compose employs artificial intelligence, which also powers Siri, the iPhone assistant. I use Siri to find out important matters, such as the score of the UT-Iowa State foot

ball game, and how many miles comprise 5,000 meters — 3.11 miles, if you were wondering. I also use it while driving to make calls, ordering Siri to call Rufus, for example. That is certainly safer than punching in numbers while cruising at 45 mph down McCann Road.

I pulled up a Google AI blog post in a vain attempt to understand how Smart Compose works. The post contained phrases such as, To improve on this, we combi

ned a BoW model with an RNN-LM, which is faster than the seq2seq models with only a slight sacrifice to model prediction quality.”

I decided to just chalk it up to magic.

As much as I enjoy employing Siri as my digital savant, after a few weeks of using Smart Compose, I turned it off. I found it intrusive to have phases magically appear that might or might not be what I intended to write. The pitch is that Smart Compose allows one to “draft emails quickly with confidence.” I just found it annoying and rather presumptuous. I found myself snapping irrationally at the screen: “That’s not what I wanted to say, dang it!” I know it is just email and not a magnum opus, but still: I can speak for myself just fine.

I read that Gmail has 1.4 billion users, which is 18 percent of the world’s population. Of course, lots of folks have more than one account. Even so that number is staggering. I wonder how many now let Gmail’s genie complete their sentences. Perhaps it could come in handy for struggling novelists, who could begin their tome in a Gmail draft and then transfer it to a manuscript.

I tried this with a number of opening lines written by famous novelists: Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, Fyodor Dostoevsky and even Edward George Bulwer-Lytton. The latter is widely credited — or blamed — for one of the worst opening lines in fiction: It was a dark and stormy night. Since 1982, the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest challenges people to “write an atrocious opening sentence to a hypothetical bad novel.”

Alas, Gmail’s Smart Compose was no help, offering no suggestions when I typed in opening lines from the aforementioned authors. I turned the feature back off. I will just go it alone in the brave new world of composition.

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