Ramblin’ Man

Google knows me too well. I’m not sure whether I should be appreciative or scared to death.

Thanks to various high-level leaks, we’ve known for some time that we’re all pretty much spied on. While there may not be human eyes on my placid daily activities, information gets scooped up and retained. Satellites can see my house, bank transactions are recorded and emails are read. I don’t care.

Some of the tech companies have tried to use the data that is collected to make life easier for people. Or more profitable for their advertisers. It seems way too interconnected when you search a product on eBay and then ads for that product start showing up on your Facebook page. If you’ve every shopped online for lingerie for your wife, you want to be careful opening Facebook in public.

Google has a newish program to help make mobile emails more manageable. Now, not only are their robots reading my emails, they are answering them for me, too.

It’s an amazing but imperfect system on my phone. When someone sends me an email, Google bots read it and come up with three potential responses. I can click on one of their responses and hit “send.” Boom. I’m done.

For someone who, at his core, is a lazy person, this is wonderful. I don’t have to type out a response or even think too much about it. For the person on the other end, it means they get some kind of acknowledgement that I received and read their email. A lot of times, I don’t respond to emails simply because it’s not convenient to do so. Google puts the juice in “easy peasy lemon squeezy.”

But, as mentioned, it’s not a perfect system. Some of the suggested responses are vague. Some are inappropriate and for some, they don’t even give a suggestion.

I decided to test the system by sending myself some emails and seeing what Google thinks one’s response should be. First, I sent a bunch of messages from my Google account to the same Google account. But I wasn’t fooling the robots. They knew the sender and recipient were the same, so there were no suggestions offered. I had to find the password to my old Yahoo! account and send the emails from there.

For simple yes/no questions, Google did OK. I sent the message: Brad called. 555-1212. Will you call him back? Google suggested three responses: 1) Yes, I will. 2) Will do. 3) No, I can’t.

But questions that require more specifics don’t work out as well. I sent the message: Who is your favorite rock band? Google’s suggestions were 1) I don’t know. 2) Why? 3) What?

When I sent the message “do you want salad or a sandwich for lunch,” Google couldn’t make up my mind. It suggested 1) Either is fine. 2) What do you want? And 3) Whatever you want.

The system is supposed to “learn” over time based on one’s actual responses. So, if I repeatedly email “I don’t eat salad,” Google will theoretically change it’s suggestions with that in mind.

I wanted to test the system further by sending some threatening emails to myself with keywords like “bomb,” “explosion,” “kill” and “gun,” but I didn’t want to risk initiating an actual FBI investigation. I can’t imagine they would be amused.

Some messages seemed beyond Google’s ability to comprehend. When I sent the message “Aliens are taking over the world as we speak,” Google offered no suggestions for reply. It also offered no reply when I sent the message, “The police are looking for you.” Maybe they just want to stay out of the fray.

It also gave no response suggestions to the messages “Your pants are on fire” and “my grandma died.” Where’s you’re empathy, Google?

The robots sounded a bit concerned, though, when I sent the message “I think I’m pregnant.” The suggested responses were 1) What? 2) Why? 3) What happened? Considering that I’m a guy, I think all three of those responses are warranted.

Moving away from simple questions, I plugged in the lyrics to the Star-Spangled Banner to see what that would do. Google suggested 1) Love it! 2) Thank you! 3) Very nice! Google apparently is fairly patriotic and a fan of exclamation marks.

Sadly, Google gave similar response suggestions for an awful poem. Robots apparently are not good judges of poetry.

I’ve noticed that a lot of the Google responses include exclamation marks. That doesn’t seem like me. I don’t use a lot of those. I just don’t exclaim much. It implies a level of energy that I don’t normally have.

So, if you get a brief email response from me that has an exclamation point on it, it would be a good bet to assume that you got the impersonal, computer-generated response that Google came up with.

When I messaged “why are Google responses so impersonal,” Google played dumb with its suggestions: 1) I don’t know. 2) What do you mean? 3) What?

To think — people used to dip nibs into ink and write thoughtful notes in beautiful cursive, which they then paid to have mailed. From that to automated email responses. Our forefathers would be amazed and appalled.

© Copyright 2017 by David Porter who can be reached at porter@ramblinman.us. I sent this copy to my Google email which offered the following responses: 1) You’re a hack, 2) Don’t quit your day job and 3) Covfefe.