Why Is Google’s Smart Compose So Good?

I thought I’d turn off the new feature immediately. Instead, I’m transfixed.

A Smart Compose Gmail window
See? See?? Gmail Screenshot

Will the indignities of the new Gmail never cease? First came Nudges, in which Gmail reminds you to answer emails you never intended on answering. Then Smart Replies rolled out, offering users a crucial one-click alternative to typing short messages like “Thanks!” After an earlier soft release, the past few weeks brought a wider rollout of a third artificial intelligence–powered “improvement” to the service: Smart Compose, a feature that promises not just inbox management or placeholder replies but the holy grail: ghost-writing emails for you almost entirely.

As a writer sometimes accustomed to staring at a blank screen, I can’t say this idea didn’t appeal to me. With Smart Compose, you start typing a sentence, and sometimes by the end of the first word, lighter text appears beside it, predicting what you might be trying to say. If the suggestion is good, pressing tab will keep it. Anyone who’s worked on a shared Google Doc at the same time as another person has already felt the strange sensation of being watched while you write, but in the case of Smart Compose, you’re being watched not by a person but by a simulacrum of one.

You can opt to turn off Smart Compose pretty easily, and at first, I figured I would go that route. I ignored it before it was forced on me; it felt disruptive. But after about a week, I’ve found myself transfixed—both by the suggestions themselves and their larger project of attempting to automate our personalities. I receive the arguments, made already by colleagues from afar, that by using these features, we’re both fueling Google’s end goal of monopolizing the machine-learning market and giving in to groupthink that could eventually strip us of our humanity. But … isn’t it sort of addictive to see a machine’s portrait of yourself reflected back at you? It’s too weird and uncanny and new to ignore.

So far, granted, the suggestions Gmail has served up are not too exciting: They tend to offer the ends of fairly boilerplate sentences: I’ll type “What’s the,” and it will finish, “best number to reach you on?” The predictive text seems to work best when writing what I would categorize as “work emails”—bland, direct, functional. When I wrote a personal email this morning, I typed, “i was getting worried cause you didn’t respond to my texts from a couple days,” and the algorithm caught up with me only in time to fill in the last word the sentence needed, “ago.” Not exactly advanced particle physics. I was writing in a lowercase, casual mode, which isn’t a voice Smart Compose really trades in. And of course, I was also only writing that email in the first place because its recipient wasn’t answering my texts—which seems reflective of how many of us use personal email these days.

Still, the service seems likely get to know us better. Smart Compose was developed without the ability to read actual emails, so its initial suggestions are likely to be similar for most of us. But in a post about the feature on Google’s AI Blog, the company said it’s “working on incorporating personal language models, designed to more accurately emulate an individual’s style of writing into our system.” I understand the impulse to see that as creepy, but I’ve also spent enough time struggling to figure out what to say—and the right way to say it—that the prospect of a program deciding for me sounds frankly pretty great. And if (when?) my Gmail starts telling me what I really think, I’m liable to be less creeped out than relieved. What’s not to like?

If you believe the oft-recycled axiom that email is dead, or at least personal email is, perhaps Smart Compose is also Google’s sneaky plan to save it. Though it quote-unquote dehumanizes the email-writing process, it suggests an email can be just as easy as a Slack or text, and also that more formal modes of communication are worth saving. That notion may benefit Google—Gmail is among its most successful products—but it also benefits less fragmented styles of writing in general. As a format, email is old-fashioned compared with many chat and messaging options because it still relies on a fairly impersonal, traditional letter-writing style, with its greetings and sign-offs, in a way we’ve all but abandoned elsewhere. For all the worries that Smart Compose could kill the fine art of email writing—and more human ways of corresponding—it may also be one of the things that keeps them alive that much longer.