For me, one of the most fascinating, beautiful and.. human characteristics of our species, is our use of language. Be it looking at a painting, reading an essay, or a lover asking how you slept. We humans share such an array of information, in ways often unique. In ways that can help define us as individuals and build our relationships. Crucially, it works too, right? We can deliver opinion, fact and feeling in as much clarity as we desire. We can make abstract suggestions on a canvas, precisely present our views in an essay, or say “Hey, I notice you” with a seemingly trivial question about someone’s sleeping pattern.

Apparently not everyone has such a crush on the nuances of language though. There seems to be a move to simplify the processes involved. To reduce them to neatly packaged (some might say “commodified”) algorithms. I first became aware of, and uncomfortable with, said phenomenon earlier this year, when attending a work summit. We had an outside organisation come in to run a session, teaching my colleagues and I the “correct” way to give and receive feedback. The proposed technique basically takes that lovely moment when a co-worker tells you you’ve done a good job, runs it through an algorithm, applies a template to it, and makes it feel utterly fake. At least that was my take on it.. I could probably improve this feedback..

More recently, we’ve been hearing about how Gmail users will “benefit” from what Google is calling “Smart Reply”. In brief, this is a form of artificial intelligence that will analyse your email and suggest some responses. The pitch is that you can quickly and easily respond to an email, on the go, without typing a word. Neat huh? I’m not so sure. Even if I put to one side any concerns I may have about all my email being “read” by a bot, this brings up similar feelings to the ones I had at the “how to give feedback” session.

While I’m sure Google’s AI would do an impressive job of learning to mimic how I communicate, it would still be replacing that layer of humanity. We’ve seen this to varying degrees before. We’ve all responded to a heartfelt, eloquent post with a thumbs-up or star heart icon. While there is a debate to be had about whether the use of icons or emoji debases our conversations, for me there are some distinctions here. An obvious distinction is disclosure, if someone sends me an emoji, I can be pretty confident that they have not taken the time to draw it themselves. Which is fine. More to my point though, while emoji add to the tools available to the user, “Smart Reply” sets out to, at least in part, replace the user. I find this a little depressing. What’s the end-game here? It doesn’t take much imagination (depending on what films you watch, perhaps) to see the human removed from the equation entirely.

Are we moving towards a world where our interactions happen without our involvement? Would we still ask a loved one how they slept, if their phone had already sent an email saying “fine thanks :)”?

Sam Smith

Designer, coder & photographer. Works at Mint Canary & Open Knowledge.