Inbox is the Trojan Horse for consumer AI
Google Inbox is going to be a huge part of Google’s success in a few years. I’m picking on Inbox for a variety of reasons here, but there are several other contenders for your personal agent: Siri, Cortana, Amazon’s Echo, even Fin. They matter, because if you don’t embrace one of these prosthetic-brain smart agents, you won’t be able to compete on productivity and will lag behind. I’m completely convinced of this. Here’s why.
(For context, Inbox, which is Google’s new mail client, is written for web and mobile devices. It’s good, and getting better fast. They keep adding new features to it.)
What Google knows about you from mail
Our email is the closest thing we have to a log file of our lives. And if I’m sure of one thing about Big Data, it’s that its main purpose is to give algorithms and smart agents something to chew on. Because Google has GMail, it’s got a massive corpus of data to process:
- There are the obvious things — the messages and their content.
- There are special kinds of messages (mostly calendars, but also some chats, reminders, and the like.)
- There’s the source of the email (whether it’s a newsletter, or a group, or a gym.)
- There’s insight into others: even if your friend isn’t using GMail, if they mail you, Google still knows all about them. In fact, there’s your entire contact history.
- There are all the transactions: Your inbox contains every purchase, plane ticket, hotel reservation, and shipment.
- There are password recoveries, account creation, confirmation, other messages managing your other online accounts.
But in addition to the messages themselves, there’s also more meta-level information:
- Your behavior: How often you mail people, how long it’s been since you talked to someone, which things you reply to fastest.)
- How you respond: There’s a set to teach Google how we respond to things. If many people say, “how about tomorrow?” when asked if they want to go for a coffee, Google learns that response. Better, Google knows when tomorrow we’re free, because it sees our calendar.
- Human intent. If someone says “can you bring the coffee?” then Google knows there’s a possible action hidden in the message.
What Inbox can do with the data
Armed with this insight, a smart agent can do a lot of work. Best of all — for Google, at least — not only does it have access to a huge body of data about you, it has your attention: You check your email constantly.
Because of this, Inbox can do a number of useful things:
- Shortcut the content from others, taking you right to the results and common actions (such as seeing an order, tracking a shipment, or looking at a support request).
- Suggest a reminder when it sees something that looks like a request within a mail. Here, Inbox has seen the ask (“can you give us your consent?”) and suggested a reminder which I can add to a task list.
- Inject reminders into my email feed based on content it’s parsed. Here, it assumes my search for “United” probably meant the next United flight I’m taking (to SXSW) and inserts it above my results. Note that this isn’t an email — it’s flight data taken from my mail.
There’s lots more, from travel directions to calendar reminders, and Google’s quietly adding fairly significant features to Inbox.
It’s not just Inbox
Google’s other offerings are getting smarter in subtle ways. Google Maps overlays addresses on maps when you know you’ll be there for an event:
Maps directions also tell you whether a store will be closed by the time you arrive, and when it’s busy:
Its calendar tool automatically detects travel plans from email and schedules them:
Google’s also got patents on visual recall — ask Google questions like, “who did I see last night?” or “did I take my pills yesterday?”
I’ll stop listing Google things at this point so the post doesn’t turn into an ad for the product — but Google is clearly getting emboldened, and becoming more serious about its AI-enhanced email tool. There are plenty of others racing after this: Amazon’s Echo; Apple’s Siri; and startups like Fin.
(Want some more examples of what kinds of thing a smart agent might do? Check out Fin’s website. It’s pretty crazy.)
Why Google can win
Unlike other products you have to install, and choose to add to your daily routine, email’s already there. You can’t not look at it. It’s pushed to your notification screen; your daily productivity depends on beating down a constantly-rising number in a small red dot. Email is our online life.
In the past, some Google services (G+, for example) had a hard time gaining traction. But email already has traction; it’s unavoidable. Google’s doubling down on Inbox, moving people towards it gradually: If you use GMail, there’s a prompt in the bottom corner saying, “take me to Inbox”. But now, once you follow it, you get a message that you’ll be taken there from now on:
Google doesn’t have to do anything to get us to adopt its AI and its smart agents; it just has to make the agent look like email. That’s why I think Google’s going to succeed here: It’s already at the core of our most fundamental online activity, independent of platform or location. And it’s only going to get easier to use: Google voice search can already respond with voice (presumably for when you’re driving a car.)
There’s another reason Google is well positioned. Artificial Intelligence needs data from which to learn — something AI researchers refer to as a Corpus — and few companies can hold a candle to Google’s corpus besides perhaps Facebook. There are now over a Billion Android handsets sold each year.
Google’s Android operating system — initially a response to the move away from the web and towards mobile computing that was blinding the company to user activity on smartphones — turns out to be the perfect tool for training an AI.
Why it’s the future
This kind of assistance will quickly seem like a superpower. You’ll have a level of productivity that’s astonishing; near-perfect recall. Administrative assistants and middle managers will be quick to vanish, once these agents catch up.
This is how the average consumer gets shallow AI. You can avoid smart agents and stick with traditional systems, but you’ll quickly be outpaced. For Google, Inbox is the Trojan Horse with which everyone’s going to adopt machine learning. In other words, Google is slowly, inexorably turning using the Internet into talking with an AI.