A picture of me standing at a lectern, working on a laptop computer, on the stage of the FWD50 digital government conference

Hi! I’m Alistair. I write surprisingly useful books, run unexpectedly interesting events, & build things humans need for the future.

Inbox is the Trojan Horse for your personal 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).

Inbox – acroll@gmail.com 2016-02-03 11-54-22

Glowforge ticket

Google smart reply

  • 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.

Inbox – acroll@gmail.com 2016-02-06 17-27-26

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:

Toronto, ON - Google Maps 2016-02-06 17-52-38

Maps directions also tell you whether a store will be closed by the time you arrive, and when it’s busy:

Blue Bottle Coffee - Google Maps 2016-02-06 17-56-19

Its calendar tool automatically detects travel plans from email and schedules them:

Google Calendar - Week of Mar 6, 2016 2016-02-06 17-57-25

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.

Fin 2016-02-03 12-06-39

(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:
redirect to Inbox

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.)

Google inbox is the future of AI - Google Search 2016-02-06 17-40-42

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.






8 responses to “Inbox is the Trojan Horse for your personal AI”

  1. […] How Google Inbox “is the Trojan Horse for your personal AI”: […]

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  3. User Avatar

    I, for one, love my Google Inbox overlords. They make my life super convenient.

  4. Barry Devlin Avatar

    Superpower? Potentially, yes! Sounds too good to be true? Sounds too good to be given away for free by Google? Beyond the hypnotic call of the productivity siren… What’s missing here is any real consideration of the economics and ethics of one “commercial” enterprise holding all the power (information = power)

    1. Alistair Avatar

      I don’t think it’s missing (I’ve written a bunch of stuff on big data and civil rights, just not here.) I’m hopeful that OpenAI, as well as open digital corpuses like Openstreetmap, Commoncrawl, and their ilk can level the playing field somehow. Data States are the new Nation States.

  5. dc.sunsets Avatar

    It sounds like you’re equating this tech with being given an eidetic memory. While this may be useful for people with extremely complex lives, for the vast majority it simply looks like another way for Google to use AI modeling to sell ads to firms who want to separate people from their money, or for Google to be a turn-key system for utterly totalitarian corporatism (the full merger of politics and business.)

    Did I miss something? (And yes, I appreciate the irony that my email is in the gmail domain.)

    1. Alistair Avatar

      Your point about people with complex lives means they’ll be early adopters. But things like taking your medication, managing a calendar, dealing with contacts beyond your Dunbar limit, and other facets of our lives are more and more mainstream. Look at online dating: there’s a huge cultural change in how many people someone screens before meeting them physically.

      Honestly, I can’t foresee a future where we aren’t reliant on smart agents to function. 1.6B people use Facebook every single day. Most of them for more than 60m a day. They’re already guided by algorithms that track friends, calendar events, and more. It’s just going to leak into other facets of life.