A view from Sue Unerman

Go ahead and censor me, algorithm

There's a robot reading our emails. It's there for our own protection - so why does it still feel a bit creepy?

Attachment Reminder: You may have forgotten to attach a file. Don’t send? Send anyway?

There’s a robot reading our emails.  It’s there for our own protection.  After all who wants to have to resend an email when they’ve forgotten to actually attach the promised document?  It is our little virtual personal assistant.  This notification comes up if you write, in the body copy of the email on Outlook, "I’m attaching the relevant document," but then fail to do so.  What brilliant use of technology.

Why does it still feel a bit creepy then? 

Is it because of the potential for expansion from a very simple reminder of an avoidable mistake to censorship, or even punishment?  There’s a range of possibilities.

If for instance you get really angry with someone, and swear in the email, Outlook might politely suggest that you amend your language.  But would it, could it correct subtle sarcasm? 

If you were angry, the very fact that Outlook corrected you might make you a) angrier or b) angry with Outlook instead.  The former makes the situation worse.   The latter diffuses the whole thing.

Could the robot reader become your conscience?  Supposing you fib about what you’re doing for example.  You may decline an evening appointment for a variety of not very good reasons.  You want a night in, in front of the telly.  You find the company of the very important person you’re meant to be seeing really quite boring and while lunch is just 90 minutes, dinner could be 180 long minutes or more.  You absolutely can’t drink for yet another evening in a row, and this is the kind of dinner where the wine is expensive and appreciating it is compulsory.  You do decline the invitation, but you say that you’re busy when in fact you’re dodging.  And Outlook says, "You may have forgotten that you are free that evening: Don’t send or Send anyway?"  Somehow, that makes the lie more blatant, for some people impossible.

General childishness.  You’ve used too many emojis for a business email.  Outlook may be useful in reminding you that you’re actually at work, and not on Facebook.  Being paid to be professional, and not smiley faced. 

Well it is all about the algorithm.  Can a Microsoft robot be your conscience?  Can it go further and shock you into correct behaviour? 

One British firm is pioneering technology to do exactly this.  Intelligent Environments has launched a platform that can link the Pavlok wristband, which delivers a 255-volt shock, to your bank account.  So if you overspend, or go below an agreed limit, the tech doesn’t just politely remind you not to, it shocks you. 

Surely this is just a step on the continuum from the current polite reminder from Microsoft Outlook about attachments.

At the moment I don’t know how many of my emails Microsoft understands.  If I knew it was everything and all of them then I’d acclimatise.  

So go ahead Outlook, and yes why not now LinkedIn.  Edit me, be my conscience, make sure I look good.  Yes even censor me.  I’m sure you would only have my best interest at heart.

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom