We High-IQ Humans Sure Do Have Thin Skins

Well, as long as they can only write in German I guess we're OK.Philippe Clément/Belga via ZUMA

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

Google Mail has a feature called Smart Compose. It’s basically autocomplete for email. It watches the stuff you write, and eventually it figures out the phrases you use most often and suggests them right away when it looks like you’re about to use one of them. Derek Thompson is…discomfited by this:

Some technology works, so people like it; and some technology doesn’t work, so people hate it. Google’s Smart Compose belongs to a different category: tech that people hate because it works. Smart Compose has an uncanny ability to auto-complete replies with my exact phraseology—to do precisely the thing for which it is designed—and it is for this very reason that I (and, I’ve gathered, many others) find it so unbelievably creepy.

….In a recent interview with a source for another story, I brought up my issues with Gmail’s auto-complete function, and we ended up talking about that for several minutes. “It can be so stressful!” he said. “Sometimes I see Gmail suggest a sentence and then I feel like I have to come up with a better sentence than the machine, because I don’t want my response to feel robotic.”

….That’s why we—or I, at least—hate Smart Compose. Not, again, because the tech is bad. But because it’s good enough to illuminate the exclamation-marked inauthenticity of our correspondence.

I have two things to say. First, chill out. Smart Compose only works with stock phrases that we use a lot. But we all use stock phrases a lot, and they don’t make up a big share of what we say and write. Figuring out that See y is likely to be See you tomorrow is hardly a threat to our humanity.

Second: This is only a problem for us hyperverbal, hypereducated types, who like to think of ourselves as intellectual powerhouses and creative geniuses. A lot of us are pretty insecure when someone (or something) suggests that we might not be the smartest example of homo sapiens on the planet. But you’d better get used to it. Smart Compose may be nothing more than autocomplete on steroids, but it’s really not going to be long before computers can write our blog posts and emails and great American novels for us. If you’re under 50, you might as well suck it up and get ready.

Here’s a guess: the first serious use of AI in the newsroom will be to replace editors, not writers. Roughly speaking, AI will take reporters’ notes or rough copy—or even what we humans laughingly call finished copy—and turn it into great prose. We’ll still need someone around to nag us about issues of substance, but the robots will compose sentences and paragraphs better than us. What’s more, they’ll be able to churn out multiple versions of our writing instantly: the magazine version, the 6th-grade version, the TV script version, the Spanish version, the PowerPoint deck, etc. Just tell it what you need and you’ll get it.

Reporters will last a little longer, but just a little. I’m giving editors until, oh, 2035. I think that’s generous. Reporters will be out of business by 2040. Better get ready.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

Corporations and billionaires don’t fund journalism like ours that exists to shake things up. Instead, support from readers allows Mother Jones to call it like it is without fear, favor, or false equivalence.

And right now, a longtime friend of Mother Jones has pledged an incredibly generous gift to inspire—and double—giving from online readers. That's huge! Because you can see that our fall fundraising drive is well behind the $325,000 we need to raise. So if you agree that in-depth, fiercely independent journalism matters right now, please support our work and help us raise the money it takes to keep Mother Jones charging hard. Your gift, and all online donations up to $94,000 total, will be matched and go twice as far—but only until the November 9 deadline.

$400,000 to go: Please help us pick up the pace!

payment methods

FOLLOW THE MONEY

Corporations and billionaires don’t fund journalism like ours that exists to shake things up. Instead, support from readers allows Mother Jones to call it like it is without fear, favor, or false equivalence.

And right now, a longtime friend of Mother Jones has pledged an incredibly generous gift to inspire—and double—giving from online readers. That's huge! Because you can see that our fall fundraising drive is well behind the $325,000 we need to raise. So if you agree that in-depth, fiercely independent journalism matters right now, please support our work and help us raise the money it takes to keep Mother Jones charging hard. Your gift, and all online donations up $94,000 total, will be matched and go twice as far—but only until the November 9 deadline.

$400,000 to go: Please help us pick up the pace!

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate