Fiction: Inbox Autopilot
My desk phone rang. It’s never good when my desk phone rings. Clients call my cell. Managers send email. If my desk phone rings, it’s because I missed an important email somewhere in the hundreds of messages polluting my inbox.
This time it was David Meyers, a principal architect at the firm I worked for. “Can you come to my office when you have a chance?” he asked. Which meant right this second, because he and I both knew I would never not be busy.
“Twenty-eight years old and I’m still getting called into the principal’s office,” I thought as I walked through the exposed concrete corridor leading from the bullpen to Meyers’s office.
“Close the door behind you, Pieter,” Meyers said. He had a shaved head and wore tiny, rimless glasses. He looked about 40, which meant he was probably 50.
I took a seat on one of his designer chairs, two intersecting panels of rustic wood that looked like they’d snap in two as soon as I put my weight on them. But defying everything I’d learned in my structural behavior class, the thing actually held. Meyers slowly closed the lid on his Macbook Air, the only item on his long, narrow desk looked like a plank salvaged from an old Viking ship. There was no way he did any actual design on that thing. This was a man whose sole job was reading and answering email.
“Robert from Gallagher Construction called and said he was worried he might have to halt construction on the Riverview Apartments project,” he told me. “He said they’ve been waiting on clarification for the electrical specs. Did you get an RFI from him about that?”
RFIs — requests for information — are the worst part of my job. Some construction managers will send an RFI for seemingly every single detail of a project. The Gallagher team had flooded me hundreds of petty RFIs asking, for example, whether a bookcase and a bookshelf are the same thing.
“I’m not sure,” I told him. “I’ve been heads down on the Aspiration condo project. The design development drawings are due by end of day Friday. I’ve been trying to keep tabs on the RFIs for Riverview, but I might have missed one. They send a lot.”
His face didn’t change expressions. “Your job isn’t to try to keep tabs on the RFIs,” he said. “It’s to respond to all of them in a timely manner.”
I didn’t know what to say. “Look, I know construction administration is a boring job,” he said. “And that it comes atop your other responsibilities. But it’s part of being an architect. I need you to get this cleared up right away.”
I sulked out of the office and back to my desk. The Aspire deadline was still looming, but I knew I had to deal with these RFIs. I popped on a pair of noise-canceling headphones to block out the din of computer fans and client calls in the bullpen and opened Outlook and found the RFI that had held things up. I’d glanced at it before, and thought it was just a question about the dimensions of an electrical box on one floor, but it was actually a more complex building code issue that I would have to research.
Once I’d cleared that up, I managed to skim the rest of the email. It seemed several of them would need considered responses, but I kept getting distracted. I opened my web browser again and skimmed through sites like Lifehacker and Makeusof, looking for a better way to deal with all this email, some strategy or app that could help me plow through it and get back to doing real work.
I found an article about setting an egg timer for 20 minutes and then working non-stop until it goes off, then giving yourself a five minute break, and then tackling your project again. The pomodoro technique. I’d tried it, it didn’t work for me. Twenty minutes is a long, miserable slog when it comes to RFI emails.
I saw lots of apps that let you “snooze” emails, hiding them until sometime in the future. That wouldn’t help me. I found a tool for organizing your inbox and easily unsubscribing from mailing lists, a new Gmail feature that automatically generates three word responses to email, and thing that automatically turns emails with times and dates into a calendar appointments. But none of those things would help me manage and prioritize hundreds of long, complex queries — an improper reply to any of which could cost me my job.
Then I came across Inbox Autopilot. It sounded like a hoax, an April Fool’s gag. The website had almost no information, just a short explanation: “You install Inbox Autopilot, and it responds to your email for you. It’s that simple.”
But I found a web forum full of people who said it worked, though no one could say quite how. “It must rely on some incredibly complex artificial intelligence,” one speculated.
“No, they’re probably outsourcing each email to some digital sweatshop in the Philippines,” another replied. “That’s how Facebook does all of its moderation.”
Well, what the hell I thought. Maybe it could delete some spam, respond to simple emails from managers, and let me focus on some of the more complex inquiries.
By this time it was almost 5pm anyway. I might as well get away from this mess of an inbox for the night and take another look in the morning. I downloaded the plugin and ran the installer. I realized after downloading it that I would probably need special access to install it, but to my surprise, all I had to do was click the file and it popped up a notification saying that it had been successfully installed. I opened Outlook and saw a small Inbox Autopilot logo, a simple line drawing of an airline pilot’s cap, in the toolbar but couldn’t find any configuration options. So I switched off my monitor, and headed for the door.
When I came back the next morning my inbox was empty. My back muscles tensed one by one along my spine as I stared in disbelief. The plugin was supposed to respond to my email, not delete it all. Then it occurred to me to check the “archived” mail section. To my great relief, it looked like everything was still there.
Meanwhile, there were over 100 new emails in my “sent mail” folder. I wondered what embarrassing canned messages the plugin must have sent to all my contacts. I opened one at random, a reply to a request for information about whether to use flathead or Phillips head screws to secure a closet shelf. The response said Phillips. OK, that works, I thought, but that could have been selected at random. So I looked at another, this one about spacing screws for a shelf under the kitchen sink. Sure enough, it had a reasonable response. I spent the rest of the morning combing through all the emails it sent, and they were all perfect, even the answers to more complex building code questions. And even as new emails rolled in, responses were appearing in the Sent Mail folder as if by magic.
It was puzzling. I remembered the suggestion that they were outsourcing the email responses to call centers in the Philippines, but these emails were coming from someone not only familiar with construction administration, but with this specific project. That meant the only possible explanation was that they had some artificial intelligence software learn the project inside out by reading my email and automatically generating responses.
It was about then that it sunk in how much trouble I could get the firm into over this. Sharing confidential emails and plans with a third party was a huge no no. But I didn’t have time to worry about that then. The RFIs were done, and I finally had time to concentrate on finishing the design documents for the Aspire project. I worked well into the night on those designs and let Inbox Autopilot do its thing.
I came into work the next day fully resolved to uninstall the plugin. But I’d been so incredibly productive the day before, not having to worry about RFIs, various construction updates, and other random bits of email. I decided to leave it on for just one more day. I decided the same thing the next day, and the day after, until days after I finished the Aspire work. I was just getting too much done to get rid of it. Meyers even stopped by my desk to compliment me on the Aspire development designs. “Also, I spoke with Rob from Gallagher,” he said. “He told me you’ve been very responsive to everything they’ve needed. Thanks for keeping up on that.”
I was hooked.
I got a surprising email two weeks later. It was from Maitland and Associates, asking if I had time to come in for an interview the next day. It was sent in response to an email that had been sent from my email address that included a résumé and a cover letter. The cover letter was worded perfectly, and the resume looked impeccable. I had no idea who had written it.
I was more than a little creeped out, but Maitland was one of the most prestigious firms in town. And Maitland was a big enough firm that they probably had interns to do the construction administration work, so I wouldn’t even need this weird plugin anymore.
It didn’t much matter what I thought, because no sooner had I read the email, Inbox Autopilot had already dashed off a reply. An appointment appeared on my calendar, and the plugin sent another email to my manager saying I needed to see the dentist about a sore tooth that had been bugging me.
Then I saw another email pop into my inbox, from Rita, a project manager from Gallagher who I’d met with a few times. We’d hit it off really well. “Dinner sounds great!” the email read. “Friday works.”
Inbox Autopilot had set me up on a date.
My cell phone rang around 1 o’clock. It was Rita. “Where are you?” she asked. I was at Maitland, where I’d been working for about two months. I looked at my calendar. There was a lunch date with Rita listed, but I was pretty sure we hadn’t talked about it. I skimmed through my sent mail folder, and there was the thread. She wrote saying that she had a meeting nearby and asked whether I wanted to meet her at our favorite sushi place a half hour ago.
“Sorry, I was about to call,” I lied. “I got stuck in a client meeting that went over.”
“Jesus, you could have told me sooner, I’ve been watching the sushi train circle the track for half an hour,” she said. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to wait for someone when you’re hungry and all you’d have to do is just reach out and grab a plate?”
“I know, I’m really sorry, I couldn’t really get my phone out during the meeting and I didn’t realize how much time had passed. Let me make it up to you tonight.”
This sort of thing was happening too often. I hadn’t planned to install Inbox Autopilot when I started at Maitland, but I worried that I wouldn’t live up to my résumé without it. They didn’t have me on construction administration, but there was still plenty of email communication with clients and partners, and I wanted to stay ahead of the game. Unfortunately, it was starting to get me into more trouble than it was worth. I was volunteering for projects at work that I didn’t know about, missing meetings that were discussed in email, and when I did make it to meetings I was always confused. Things were mostly going great with Rita, but I kept missing things. I sent her a birthday email, but forgot to buy her a birthday present.
This lunch date was the final straw. I was going to have to uninstall it and just manage my email on my own like a normal person. But I couldn’t find a way to uninstall the plugin. The Inbox Autopilot website was still as austere as it had been the first time I visited. No uninstallation instructions, no customer support number or email address. So I Googled “uninstall Inbox Autopilot.” This produced a very different set of results than I found during my original research. Or perhaps, in my desperation for a solution, I just glossed over them.
“No way to uninstall,” one person wrote. “I think they hacked my computer. My IT guy at work couldn’t even find a way to get rid of it.”
“I reformatted my hard drive, and reinstalled everything fresh,” read another post. “But it just came back.”
“The hard drive on my old laptop burned out,” said still another. “I bought a new laptop, and found Inbox Autopilot already installed on it. Pretty sure they’re using this to hack your bank accounts, or find ways to blackmail you.”
As I was fretting, a new email appeared. “It’s come to our attention that you’re trying to uninstall Inbox Autopilot,” it read. “We’re disappointed that you did not find our product satisfactory. However, your Inbox Autopilot service cannot be canceled at this time.”
I realized I was just going to have to come clean. Tell Rita that every email I’d written to her since before we started dating were written by a computer. After work, I’d tell Rita everything, I resolved. Then, tomorrow, I’d tell the IT department. I’d be lucky if all they did was fire me. Maybe they’ll be able to go to the police, find someway to stop this thing.
My desk phone rang. “Hey Pieter, it’s Richard Maitland,” the voice on the other end said. “Could you drop by my office?”
I figured I was already fired. Maybe that would save me from the humiliation of trying to explain what I’d done. The only time I’d talked to Maitland was on my first day of work, for a brief handshake, and I’d never seen him again.
“Hey, come on in and shut the door,” Maitland said as I stepped into his office.
Maitland had the stern look of a bald eagle, like the sort of guy who sent his kids to military school. His office was the exact opposite of Meyers’s. He had several shelves of architecture and design books, along with dozens of building models sitting on shelves or hanging from ceilings. He had a big noisy workstation on his desk, as well as the iPad Pro that he was staring at as I came in. Best of all, he had nice plush leather chairs. Might as well be comfortable while I’m getting fired.
“Listen, I know you’ve been having a hard time with some of the changing requirements on the Broadway project,” Maitland said. “Sorry for all the confusion there. You’re doing great work.”
That was one of the projects I’d apparently volunteered for by email, but didn’t know anything about when it came up in a meeting. I hadn’t done any work on it.
Maitland held up his iPad and pointed at some floorplans on its screen with a stylus. “This is a really clever use of space in the one-bedroom units,” he said. “John from Visionary Development thinks the smaller units are going to feel really spacious, he’s really pleased.”
Just as I was about to tell him he must have confused me with someone else and that I hadn’t even started on the Broadway plans, he asked me if I wanted to be a project architect on an auditorium the firm had coming up. That was a major promotion over doing junior architecting on apartment buildings. But it would also be more managerial work, coordinating with other architects, as well as clients and contractors.
“Yeah!” I said. “Sorry, I just wasn’t expecting that, it’s coming as a surprise.”
I felt terrible on my way back to my desk, but how could I say no to an offer like that? I opened Outlook to try to get back up to speed on the Broadway building, and discovered that I’d actually sent out the entire project already. There was a huge amount of work being done with my name on it that I’d been sending out. I looked at the designs, wondering who had done them.
Why would whoever is behind Inbox Autopilot hire architects to work on my projects for me? Corporate espionage? Nah, no one would want floor plans for hastily constructed low income housing buildings. Terrorists? Maybe this was all a ruse to get access to bigger projects down the line, like the auditorium. They could plant secret entrances, or maybe even structural weaknesses that no one would catch. I tried to picture some Islamic State recruit cranking out Revvit designs from bunker in Syria on the off chance they could use his work to attack some suburban Oregon community college auditorium, but it just didn’t make any sense.
Then I noticed a new outbound email to Rita titled “We’re over.”
“I couldn’t bring myself to meet you today,” it said. “I’m sick of you and I never want to see you again.”
My throat tensed. I didn’t want this to be over. My phone buzzed. I looked at the text: “You fucker” was all it said.
Before I could respond to her text, my phone sent a message on its own. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t polite. Not only had Inbox Autopilot taken over my phone, but it had ruined any shot I had at getting Rita back.
A new text message came in, from a number I didn’t recognize. “Don’t worry, she’s not for you,” it said. “We’ll find you someone better.”
This short story originally appeared in my weekly e-mail newsletter.