Why Google Wants to ‘Can’ Your Messages


What makes Google think users want canned messages? Google filed a patent application, published November 19, for algorithmically driven auto-reply.

As you might expect, the messages aren’t really “canned” in the way that an email vacation auto-reply might be. It’s actually quite Googlish.

Here’s what Google is up to, and why you might actually love this technology.

Here’s how Google’s idea works: You grant Google access (natch!) to all your social networks, SMS and IM accounts and email accounts. Google grabs your past replies to posts by family and friends to learn how you put words together. Then, going forward, Google’s technology would identify which of your contacts’ posts merit a reply, determine the nature of other people’s replies to that message and craft a suggested reply from you based on what you are likely to say in such a situation (in your “voice”).

Google then tees it up for you, offering you the choice to one-click reply, one click don’t reply, or modify the reply before posting it — or it can simply auto-reply for you without bothering you about it.

The patent application also covers other forms of engagement, such as clicking a “Like” button for you on Facebook or, say, a thumbs down on YouTube.

Online opinion-mongers are latching on to the horrid specter of allowing machines to reply or comment for people.

However, the Google patent isn’t about that part of the idea — in fact it’s dismissed in the patent as “prior art.”

The Motorola Moto X phone, for example, has a feature that detects whether you’re in a moving car. If you are, incoming messages are offered up by the phone’s voice system, which asks if you want the phone to read it to you. The alternative is for the phone to reply for you, saying that you’re driving right now and will contact them later.

(This is similar to the truly “canned” vacation responder, which sends the same email to everyone saying you’ll reply later.)

Some Non-Google apps tee up social replies, too. For example, the iOS and Android app EasilyDo selects messages from people you follow on social networks, and preps responses. Most of these responses are along the lines of “congratulations!,” “my condolences” or “happy birthday!”

In fact, the general idea of replies that you didn’t write is much older than even the Internet itself. For the past 100 years it’s been common for busy executives to have secretaries or executive assistants write entire letters, memos and other documents and present them to the executive for signature.

No, Google’s patent isn’t about auto-generated replies. It’s about good auto-generated replies.

When this tech hits, this is the part people will oppose. The reason is that they may not be able to tell whether a comment or reply was machine-generated or not.

So how might Google use this technology?

Google Glass

The most obvious application would be Google Glass, which already enables you to reply to social media, chat and email messages hands-free via voice dictation. Trouble is, voice dictation is rarely perfect. For me, most of my replies are pretty banal, such as “Cool! Talk to you then!” or “OK, thanks!” — that sort of thing. It would be faster and more accurate for Google to tee these up for me and enable me to post them with a tap or a single word of approval. Google might also help me instantly create longer, more meaningful replies than the short ones I’m likely to send from Glass.

The Google Watch

Google is rumored to be working on a smartwatch. Google’s auto-reply system could enable you to reply to most communication and social messages with a single tap on the watch. Incoming messages could tell you what the message or post is, then offer your reply. If you agree to that reply, a single tap posts it.


Most of us already do some kind of filter-creation or auto-responses in email. They’re hard create because it’s impossible to know exactly what the nature of incoming messages will be. Google could help make these more flexible and appropriate.

Google Now

Google Now is evolving into a full-fledged artificial intelligence assistant, which “dialogs” with you to narrow down specific commands or requests. It would be great for Google Now to say things like: “You’re running late for your lunch with Janet, would you like me to send her a note that says: ‘Hey, Janet. Sorry, but I’m running late. I’ll be there at 12:15.’ You just say “yeah, send it” and off it goes.

You could do this from Glass, the Google Watch — or even while exercising and listening to music through earbuds.

The bottom line is that Google’s patent doesn’t necessarily suggest a dystopian future where machines do our social networking for us. It’s part of the already evolving future where intelligent assistants like Google Now, Siri and others function as our partners in facilitating all our tasks, including communication, and making sure we don’t miss stuff that we don’t want to miss (like appropriately responding to our peeps when something major happens in their lives).

People might imagine pawning off the chore of communicating with loved ones to the cold, unthinking machines. But we should also imagine the reverse scenario: Spending time with family while the machines reply to work-related posts.

The technology itself is neutral about whether it degrades or enhances the relationships we care about most. It simply gives us the power to make that decision.

Google is in a unique position to bring about this technology, because it’s got access to more personal data, and more forms of communication and social networking than most companies do. Plus, they’re really good at algorithms.

It’s also worth pointing out that for every technology action, there is an equal and opposite cultural re-action.

As communication becomes more automated, the value of custom-crafted communication becomes more valuable.

If you really want to show you care, you’ll ignore Google’s new technology and write it yourself.