Smart email systems that use artificial intelligence to predict what we will type next can help us write messages to our friends, colleagues, and family faster, but are we risking losing something in the process?

When you start typing a reply in Google’s Gmail, it may feel as if it is reading your mind. Tap out the letters “tha,” and the rest of a sentence appears in greyed-out letters. When you press tab, your sentence will finish itself.

Previously, you would have had to go through the trouble of wasting valuable seconds typing out “thank you very much” or “that sounds great” all by yourself. However, email systems such as Gmail can now finish sentences for you. This feature is powered by natural language processing, a type of artificial intelligence that aims to understand and use language in more human-like ways than computers have previously managed.

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But while it can help to reduce the amount of time spent composing an email, many people have mixed feelings about the autocomplete feature, known as Smart Compose, with some describing its ability to scan our messages and come up with a suitable response as downright “creepy”.

With machines starting to take over some of the art of composing messages to our colleagues, friends and loved ones, does this also risk robbing us of something more important? Are they stealing our uniqueness and the joy of human interaction? Could these autocomplete technologies even be altering the way our brains function?

“Prediction is fundamental to our perception and relationship with the world,” says Maria Geffen, a psychologist. who works at the University of Pennsylvania on neuronal circuits for auditory perception and learning. “Our brain is constantly forecasting. For example, when we listen to someone speak against a loud background noise, we make predictions about what phrase they said even if we only hear a subset of sounds. This is also true for more complex cognitive tasks, such as sentence production.”

Writing involves a complex coordination of cognitive processes, including the use of long-term memory, the semantic system, working memory, and planning, both by hand and on a computer.

An estimated 281 billion emails are sent every day by the world’s 3.8 billion email users

However, Geffen contends that outsourcing the work of sentence composition to a machine could have profound implications for the way our brains work.

“We are currently conducting experiments in which we are tracking the activity of neurons in the brain that represent sounds over days and discovering that the same ensembles of neurons exhibit varying patterns of activity from day to day,” she says. “So, it’s very interesting to consider what happens when, on the one hand, prediction is performed for us by a computer algorithm rather than our brain, and how this repeated experience affects our interaction with the world.”

Every day, the world’s 3.8 billion email users send an estimated 281 billion emails. That means that each of us receives approximately 74 emails per day on average. We were lucky to get more than two or three letters a day before the internet, and the majority of them were bills.

So it’s not surprising that we might require some assistance in responding to this onslaught of messages. Technology that analyses our writing habits to predict which words we will use next can reduce the need to type dozens of individual letters to a single tap.

Smart Compose is just one of several technologies that use artificial intelligence to predict what we might be trying to say. Most smartphones already include predictive text algorithms, which use what we’ve typed in the past to suggest the next words in a sentence as we write. Applications that can finish our sentences in desktop word processing programmes are also appearing.
These technologies follow on the heels of other attempts to take some of the heavy lifting out of the typing we have to do.
Gmail introduced Smart Reply before Smart Compose, which takes a similar approach by offering users three short potential responses as “shortcuts” that can be selected with the click of a button. Search engines now frequently use autocomplete to suggest questions we might ask. Our smartphones and web browsers also have autofill features that will fill out online forms for us.
There are undoubtedly advantages. Autocomplete, for example, can reduce cognitive load and time spent filling out online forms. According to one study, it can even help you get lower air fares.

One study found that secondary school children who used predictive text on their mobile phones made more spelling errors than non-users—100-guaranteed-success

However, even simple features like autocorrect, which was first introduced on Microsoft Word in the 1990s and later became a common texting aid on mobile phones, raised concerns about the impact it was having on children’s writing skills.

Although there hasn’t been a lot of research done on the effects of more advanced technologies that can automatically complete our sentences for us, there are some indications that they may change the way we use language.

According to one year-long study, secondary school students who used predictive text on their mobile phones made more spelling errors than non-users, but university students who used the technological writing aid made fewer grammatical errors. According to Clare Wood, a Nottingham Trent University psychologist who led the study, there is even some evidence that predictive text technologies may have a positive impact on those who use them.

“We know that exposure to misspellings can occasionally interfere with adults’ memory for correct spellings,” she says. “As a result, autosuggest functions may be beneficial in reducing the potential negative impact of seeing misspelt words in texts and other online communications in adult users.

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