Thursday, May 18, 2017

How Gmail broke the Internet

It all started so innocently.

Google developed Smart Reply, where its neural-net AI was able to comprehend emails sent to you and craft reply options (as above). All you had to do was to select a good option and your email reply would be automatically launched.

No typing.

Look at the image again. Those replies are good! And they're not just some random canned text from a small database of stereotypical small-talk. Those replies are crafted by a deep learning neural net trained on zillions of examples. Those replies are fresh.

After you've tried it a bit, it seems very natural - even obvious. How did we ever do without it? It became increasingly unnecessary to actually review the proposed replies. Over time the system learned your own choices and became better and better at anticipating. The Gmail equivalent of "I'm Feeling Lucky" worked so well that people took to just letting Gmail reply to incoming mail all by itself.

Well, that was great, except that soon pretty much all Gmail users were using Smart Reply and indeed, ceding it control of their inboxes. Since all messages received (courteous) replies, the volume of email on the Internet began to rise exponentially.

Smart Reply was smart all right, but not all that creative. As the proportion of emails on the Internet began to be dominated by AI-generated texts, the level of - well, literary excellence - began to fade, degrading the input into Smart Reply's response-crafting neural-net.

And then one day, the Internet finally seized up.

It failed trying to carry 1018 concurrent emails, all consisting of the single word: "Wow!".

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