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Why email is a better virtual assistant

Mike Elgan | Nov. 10, 2015
Google is inventing something better than Siri, Cortana, Alexa or even Google Now: artificial intelligence email.

This is how the human mind works, by the way. No matter what creative, long-winded or poorly constructed request is expressed to us, we zero in on the substance of what is being asked and reply to the intent, not the form, and do so with a tone that makes sense based on the circumstances.

Google revealed in a blog post last week that an early version replied with "I love you" to most emails because it's such a common reply. That would have been exceedingly friendly, but probably not appropriate for most business communication.

Smart Reply's early inclination to express affection drove researchers to spend more time working on matching the tone of the reply with that of the initial email.

Why Inbox is a virtual assistant

"But wait," I can almost hear you saying, "semi-automated reply capabilities do not a virtual assistant make."

It's worth pointing out that Inbox already has assistant-like features, such as autocorrect-like suggested reminders. Inbox also populates reminders with publicly available information like phone numbers, directions or business hours when your reminder references a specific business.

Google also uses "natural language understanding technology" to identify incoming messages as "to do" items. So if your spouse, for example, asks you to do something, Inbox will add a one-click option in the subject view of the email to auto-create a reminder.

If you create a reminder in Google Keep, which is Google's service for holding arbitrary bits of information, Google Inbox will notify you when the user-specified time comes, with a link back to the Google Keep note.

A virtual assistant is a computer-based system that watches over you, protects you, warns you, reminds you and helps make your life easier and better. With Smart Reply, Inbox is heading confidently in that direction.

But unlike voice-command virtual assistants, such as Siri, Cortana, Alexa and Google Now, the virtual assistant in Google Inbox is integrated seamlessly into your regular, everyday communication. It offers the benefits of a voice-based virtual assistant, plus the benefits of email: It's asynchronous as well as easily reviewable and searchable.

In its quest to build a better email service, Google has also started to build a better virtual assistant.

If you're using Google Inbox already, it's not something you have to go find, download, install, learn or adapt to. It's just email with a virtual assistant that uses artificial intelligence to help you out.


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