Google’s Smart Compose and the Art of Writing

Screen capture from Gmail, with the Smart Compose suggestion to finish my sentence with “d be great”.

If you don’t have a Gmail account, then this will be completely unknown to you, but it should be a reason for you to rush out and try yet another of Google’s game changing applications. I’ve used gmail as my primary account for about a decade. I’ve debated many times with people about its merits compared to either institutional systems or other commercial systems.

But a latest release is a huge change and it’s already making my email experience less painful. And this is crucial. For years, I’ve felt like email has been broken. After all, compare it to instant messaging. We don’t say Dear XX, or Best Wishes, at the end of every WhatsApp text, but we do on email. Why??? It’s a means of communicating for which the conventions are way out of sync with our culture of communication.

But it’s latest innovation in Gmail makes me love email a bit more again. Smart Compose was released this year and it’s a very simple proposition: Google will try to guess what you are going to write, so you don’t have to! Yes. Crazy. I know. But it works. It works enough to take the sting out of all those ‘Best Wishes’ and anything else that describes the purely functional side of writing, allowing you to concentrate on more important words.

Traditionalists may worry that this is the beginning of the end of writing but I, for one, am already way on that route. I use Google’s keyboard on my mobile phone to voice type WhatsApp messages, because I’m still rubbish on my phone’s keyboard, constantly making mistakes. Voice typing has improved my writing productivity dramatically and is an amazing way for me to get a first draft out there. This is not the first era where books have been written via dictation and it may even make writing a more accessible task for people who struggle to write.

What’s clear about our past is that the means by which we record history changes over time. From ancient hieroglyphics to emojis, we must accept that there is no art of writing that will remain forever. There may be an art to writing with a pen or even a keyboard about which we will feel nostalgic and seek to exercise for the pleasure of the experience. But as a cultural habit, these practices will and are changing and the integration of artificial intelligence is bound to be part of that process.

Google’s Smart Compose works and it makes email more pleasant. And that’s enough for me to give it a big thumbs up!

Chair in Science Communication & Future Media @SalfordUni / written 4 Washington Post, Wired + found on CNN, BBC Newsnight, TEDx #posthuman