Info-tech

Google’s Reply is freaking me out

Mala Bharghava | Updated on: Feb 26, 2018
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Google wants to do my talking for me. What is it I'm supposed to be doing?

Forget Artificial Intelligence taking over our jobs: It may well take over everything else we do as well. This was made abundantly clear to me when I was trying out the beta of Google’s upcoming app, Reply.

If you use the Gmail app or Allo, you're already acquainted with Google's preset reply feature. You get a selection of three possible replies to pick from. As you grow to use and love the feature, the feature gets to know and love you, anticipating what you want to say better and better. Saves time and effort and you get through your email and messages in a trice and everyone's happy. Or are they?

A 'Thanks for the update' or 'Noted' is all very well in email, but we use something like Whatsapp or Facebook Messenger for much more involved and personal conversation all day. Now one really begins to notice what these replies are saying, and I can tell you it is very unnerving indeed.

Recently, my mother was ill and in hospital and my sister was giving us siblings regular information on what was going on. "All vitals are good and stable," she said. "Good," says Google's Reply, "Keep us posted". Say what? I was so startled that I told the others what Google had suggested. "We are all going to be wiped out with this AI," says my sister. "Good," says Reply. And so went our conversations that evening, my family and Google with touching concern shown by the latter shown towards my mom, whom I didn’t know Google was even acquainted with.

All OK's and Yeah's and so on where said at the right places, of course, throughout our chatter on Whatsapp. But every so often it would also go wrong. When my sister reported that my brother had reached the hospital (to see my mom) Reply says, "Oh no!". That, of course, is not what I meant to say. "I found the kettle," says my brother, and Reply says, "I'm good". You can even set auto replies for many situations, so there's more room for strange conversations.

Later, a tech friend popped up on Whatsapp and asked me if I'd tried Reply yet. Yes, I confirmed. But he reported having given it a go and then given it a miss as it annoyed him. "I killed it," he says. "Try again," says Google!

I have been disenchanted with the way Google and other tech companies have been 'personalising' everything we interact with online for over a decade, when I found I could never get 'blank slate' search results and was always being shown what Google algorithms said I wanted to see. The only way to start afresh would be to sign out of one's account or clear the entire browsing history online. But personalisation would build up again. The phenomenon spread to every app and every ad—since that's the idea in any case.  It's now become the norm and we hardly notice that we now have fewer choices in the world, not more, because you're only presented what is per-chosen for you. And that's a frightening thought.

As of a few months ago, I took a liking to a certain kind of dress — a 'fit-and-flare' as it's called. I hunted for them and bought quite a few to populate my wardrobe. And now, the world only seems to have fit-and-flare dresses. I never get to see any other type because all of the machinery around me has swung into action to give me more of what it thinks I want. Nagging reminders punctuate the day, in a feverish attempt to market at me and fill my cupboard with more fit-and-flare. “Mala, we miss you! Checkout these dresses curated just for you!” Etc etc. Someone's doing my shopping for me, someone's picking my movies for me, I'm reading the same category of books again and again, I eat no end of asparagus salad, and just because i nostalgically rediscovered bubble gum, I can no longer escape it. And now, Google wants to do my talking for me. What is it I'm supposed to be doing?

Published on February 28, 2018

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