Software

Google Allo's generic auto-replies can't handle life's tough conversations

Can't grapple with your own messy life? Google's Smart Replies lets you hide behind its artificial intelligence (with varying success).

Lynn La
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Life is full of tough conversations. When push comes to shove, you have only two options: Be an adult and tackle them head on, or let an app generate replies so you don't have to.

Cowering behind an app may not be the most mature approach to handling your personal business, but Google's new chat app, Allo, makes that a distinct possibility. Among its other chatting traits (including a handy privacy mode for those racier conversations), Allo has a feature called Smart Reply that generates generic, canned responses to messages. You don't have to use them, and Google says they're intended for when you're on the go and you need a quick response. (For example, if you're in a rush and received a message asking, "Are you free?," you can tap "Yes. Why?," "Maybe" or "Not sure, why?" to answer.)

But life isn't always so predictable and out of pure curiosity, I wanted to throw some curveballs at Smart Reply. To do this, I had two phones with separate Allo accounts. One belonged to yours truly, while the other belonged to "Gerty," someone I created and named (after the heartstring-tugging robot in Moon). I put him through five scenarios, including a breakup, a job firing and an engagement announcement.

As I spoke to him naturally, Gerty replied back (actually me, selecting Smart Replies). Replies generate when there's a high confidence that a suggestion would be helpful or related to the context of the message, so if my original text didn't prompt a Smart Reply, I continued the conversation as Lynn until a reply was triggered for Gerty. For this piece, I scored the experience (because I could) on a scale of 0 to 5, with 5 being most satisfying.

It's not a perfect experiment -- after all, I'm not talking to a bot per se, just to myself using bot-generated phrases, but the results were interesting. A few of Smart Reply's meaningless and circular responses quelled any previous fears I had that Google would succeed in replacing genuine human interaction as we know it. But in some ways, Allo impressed me with its measured responses to potentially disastrous situations. Let's just say that all in all, Smart Reply isn't any better (or worse) at handling your life than you are.


1. Breaking up

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Lynn La/CNET

Though dating apps like Tinder and Bumble ushered in an era of hyper-casual encounters and lax dating etiquette, breaking up over text is still considered bad form. Gerty, however, took it in his stride. Not only was he unoffended that I was ending a relationship through a chat app, he admitted quite quickly that he had no hard feelings whatsoever (a little too quickly for my taste). Still, despite his aloofness, you couldn't call him rude. After angrily bidding him good riddance (to which he replied, "I hope so") and calling him unbelievable, Gerty, polite as ever, simply remarked, "Thank you."

Score: 3. Despite its lack of sentimentality, Smart Reply kept it civil. Farewell my love, I hardly knew ya.


2. Getting fired

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Lynn La/CNET

Sometimes Gerty's unwavering stoicism comes off as denial. Like, for instance, when you're trying to fire him. In perhaps the most frustrating conversation, I fire Gerty for his poor performance, tardiness and "low numbers" (that's a thing people say, right?). Gerty, in turn, was having none of it. He was indifferent about improving, didn't really think this was a serious conversation and altogether refused to believe he was fired. Too bad Google didn't program more workspeak for Gerty to use like, "Run it up the flagpole," "Let's touch bases on this" and "synergy."

Score: 1. Smart Replies made it exasperating to fire Gerty, but the experience earned itself a point since I didn't have to call in HR.


3. Seeking medical help

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Lynn La/CNET

This was perhaps Smart Reply's most challenging scenario, as this situation offered the fewest canned responses. After messaging Gerty several times to help me from a car accident, I was met mostly with silence. That's because there were hardly any Smart Replies generated, and the only way to prompt one was to ask if Gerty was around. After he confirmed that he was, that was pretty much the extent of his help. Pfft, thanks for nothing Ger'.

Score: 0. Google probably has good reason to steer clear from responding to medical emergencies, and you're likely a terrible person in real life if you're using canned replies while your friend is physically wounded. I'll give this scenario a 0 in terms of entertainment value, but a solid 5 for Google in avoiding a PR nightmare.


4. A friend's celebration

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Lynn La/CNET

Telling Gerty that I got engaged was like telling it to that one frenemy of yours who is nice to your face but doesn't sincerely care. His replies were short, punctuated appropriately with exclamation points, and didn't go much beyond that. Then again, maybe I should give him more credit. He did sound happy for me, which matters a lot. And if I wanted to be prodded with more details, I should just spill them instead of passive-aggressively waiting to be asked. Wait, did Smart Reply just helped me discover how self-involved I am?!

Score: 5. Stilted as the Smart Replies were, they were appropriately congratulatory and happy. What more can I ask for from reams of code and linguistic algorithm?


5. The booty call

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Lynn La/CNET

Full discretion: Hitting up someone casually isn't something I do often, so perhaps Gerty was put off by my equally generic prompts for a tryst. (Your first hint should've been when I unimaginatively asked "You up?"...at 4:30 in the afternoon.) And while he was characteristically kind, he ultimately shut me down more times than not. Luckily, my ego is still intact.

Score: 4. Let's face it, this conversation could have gone far worse. The Smart Replies managed to walk that delicate line of being cordial and sparing my feelings, without giving me a full-blown rejection. Cheers to that.