Google wants to be your secretary with new smart e-mail

SAN FRANCISCO (BLOOMBERG) - Google, not content with trying to be your search engine, music library, e-mail service, fitness monitor and Internet advertising billboard, now wants to be your secretary.

The Alphabet Inc.-subsidiary said Tuesday that its Inbox e- mail service is getting a free tool named Smart Reply, which uses artificial intelligence to scan the contents of messages, pick three of a possible 20,000 common responses and suggest them to you.

For example, if someone asks about your vacation plans, and whether you can send them, Smart Reply will offer three pre- written responses, like "no plans yet", "I just sent them to you," or "I'm working on them," Google said in a blog post.

Smart Reply uses similar AI technology to that recently rolled out in the Mountain View, California-based company's main Google search engine, via a system named RankBrain. Smart Reply, like RankBrain, uses an approach to convert the words and sentences in the e-mail into mathematical entities - called vectors - that let it understand and reason about the content of the message. It then figures out what some appropriate responses might be.

This system is emblematic of the way large technology companies are trying to use AI to do easy-to-automate tasks that people otherwise do manually. The bet is that a consumer will be more likely to use a company's particular software if they know they can accomplish tasks in a shorter amount of time. Google has been one of the biggest corporate sponsors of AI, and has invested heavily in it for videos, speech, translation and search.

These features have already been rolled out in personal- assistant products such as Apple Inc.'s Siri, Microsoft Corp.'s Cortana, and Google's own Google Now. Startups like X.Ai and Clara are also using machine learning to produce narrower systems that can scan an e-mail and, if it looks like there's a meeting being arranged, automatically add it to your calendar.

Early versions of Smart Reply had an overwhelming tendency to suggest the response "I love you" to seemingly anything.