I attended IBM Connect last week, where I checked out one of the most interesting products you’ve likely never heard of — a new email offering called “IBM Verse.” While there was a lot of discussion about how it better integrated social networking, what really intrigued me was the idea of putting cognitive computing inside an email client.
“Cognitive computing” is the new way of saying “artificial intelligence,” because, you know, the industry likes to change terms every once in a while just to mess with our heads. Regardless of what it’s called, thinking email could be incredibly powerful.
I’ll close with my product of the week, which has to be IBM Verse, the fascinating email product that focuses on the user. If I don’t tell you about it, you’ll likely never hear of it.
Email That Thinks
A lot of what we do with email is repetitive. That’s why executives in the past rarely handled their own correspondence; their secretaries would do it for them. Secretaries, apprentices or assistants set up meetings, offered birthday wishes, responded to inquiries — even sent direct messages. They often still do, which makes those roles especially powerful.
The fact is, if you get an email from a politician, chances are pretty good that it wasn’t written by that politician. It might not have been written by a human at all — but rather by some machine regurgitating the same text over and over again, mostly to annoy us.
If you could make an email system smart, it could do not only what secretaries used to do, but also a whole lot more — and likely better. You see, a human assistant typically would not be privy to all of your email or other expressions of your thoughts. An assistant might not know all of your friends or family, and certainly wouldn’t be well versed in your private and personal life.
An email system generally will handle most all of your daily correspondence, though, and if it were a smart email system tied into social networking, then over time, it likely would come to know you better than you know yourself.
As it gained insight, it not only could prioritize messages and automatically handle tasks like setting and changing appointments, but also could begin to respond for you, if you let it. You could opt to increase its responsibilities with your oversight.
Such a system could remove email as a chore for most of us, eliminate virtually all repetitive emails, and even allow us to be more accurate when dictating responses to email over our phones while driving. We could just give a command to write a response with key elements and let the system do the rest.
One of the big advantages of an intelligent email system would be dynamic advice. The system would be reading an email as it was created. If you’re like most of us, from time to time, you have written an email you later regretted sending. Through routine monitoring, a smart system could make suggestions on how to alter tone and reword a message to better accomplish your goal, or just notify you that what you’re writing could be deadly to, pick one, your career, marriage, relationship, safety or freedom.
I imagine that type of feature would be pretty useful on Twitter. In any case, it not only could act in your stead, but also could help you communicate more effectively and either keep you out of trouble or perhaps intercede after the fact.
Take this hypothetical alert, for example: “Email was not sent. It was determined that the racially and sexually insensitive material you were about to send to everyone in the company would result in a catastrophic response you may have not considered. Oh, and you forgot to capitalize Assh*le.” Could be incredibly valuable by itself.
Let’s push the envelope a bit. There are a number of projects designed to create an immortal digital concept of a person — a digital avatar, if you like. At the core of these projects is some process to capture what makes every person unique. The easiest way to do that would be to mine a person’s email for insights into personality, speech patterns, history and knowledge.
By increasingly being able to emulate someone, a smart email system eventually could create a decent digital clone that initially could interact over email, and perhaps with a good sound sample from the individual and the right speech integration, also do a pretty decent job of vocal emulation.
Imagine being able to send an email to a company founder who has died, asking for advice on a question of strategy or direction. Granted, the system might stay a bit stuck in time, given that it wouldn’t be able to create the source’s response on issues that were unknown during the individual’s lifetime, but enhancements over time likely could emulate those responses as well, creating a thinking, learning, growing version of the departed executive.
Let’s take Steve Jobs, for instance. I’ll bet Apple’s executive staff would like to have a chat with him from time to time, and if the Steve Jobs avatar were made visible, it likely could not only launch new products, but also interact with an audience.
Much of the email correspondence that would make such a thing possible still exists, and there is a chance that a digital version of Steve could be created from those records at some future point.
Wrapping Up: Email Smarter Than You Are
It does strike me that with smart TVs, smart cars, smartphones, and now smart email, there could come a time when we may not be smart enough ourselves, and we’ll need a significant upgrade.
Until then, things like smart email could serve as the bridge that frees up our time and keeps us from doing certain incredibly stupid things, like writing an email while angry.
Still, I can’ t help but wonder how long it will be before one of those smart things decides we’re too stupid to interface with it.
Like a lot of you, I live in email. However, we really haven’t seen much of an improvement in email since Outlook was launched in the 1990s. Granted, that’s in large part our fault, as we really don’t like change much. Still, it is well past time that someone came up with a very different idea.
What IBM Verse does is funnel your email accounts and social network feeds into one client. It then learns to organize your communications based on priority. No more last in first out — you see your important stuff up front and can blow off your unimportant stuff more easily.
IBM is adding cognitive capability to the product, but it is far less capable than the imaginings I indulged in above. Right now, it can provide assistance with the tone and structure of an email you’re drafting, but as Watson becomes more capable, I expect that enhanced capabilities are in its future.
You have to see this product to appreciate it, though, as it would change your email experience substantially, and it could make you far more efficient and effective in handling written communications.
Ironically — at least for me, given that one of the projects I worked on while at IBM was voice mail integration with email — it doesn’t have that feature. Still, in most other ways it is a huge step forward in how email is handled. Because IBM Verse rethinks email, and I live in email, it is my product of the week.
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