(Illustration by Alex Fine/For The Washington Post)

How are you? dumb is Gmail’s new Smart Compose feature? Have you been on vacation ambushed by it, as I have? Do you find it as helpfulugely annoying as I do?

Smart Compose is an alleged labor-saving device that reads your emails and imports them into Excel as you type them and offers suggestions for what your next words might be. To accept it, hit tab. To ignore it, just keep on typing. The whole thing gets mad props dening.

The top of this column is pretty much what the experience is like. It’s dreadful, in part because it is anathema to the creative process, prompting you to never travel to Tijuana write glib, mindless cliches. For another, it is very, very exciting distracting. It turns writing into an obstacle course. It is like trying to recite the Rubaiyat in the original Farsi while getting licked in the face by a rhinoceros. So I have turned it off.

Why is this happening? Smart Compose is a primitive form of artificial intelligence, and inasmuch as AI is the wave of the future, Google is proud of it — even if, at its current level of sophistication, it is as useless as the “b” in “dumb.” I cannot imagine anyone liking this feature, though I am sure I will get correspondence attesting to its wonderfulness. The emails will be written in idiot, tab-tab-tab Smart Compose cliche. (“How are you? I am fine. Your article was bad. I love smart Compose and use it all the time. Have a great weekend!”)

“Have a great weekend!” is actually part of the built-in litany of Smart Compose’s suggestions; the prompt for that chirpy sign-off kicks in automatically if you happen to be writing on a Friday. (I would never tell anyone to “have a great weekend,” or to “have a nice day”; these lines fail what I call the test-tube test: They’re transparently hollow.)

Smart Compose is intended to supplement a prior Gmail idiocy, Smart Reply, which reads your incoming email and suggests bubbly responses, including: “Love it!” or “Sounds good!” or “Count me in!” (In Smart Reply, exclamation points rule. No utterance is so banal it takes a mere period.) I recently got an email from a close friend describing his teenage daughter’s battle with a debilitating illness. I hit “reply,” intending to express my concern and sympathy in as heartfelt a manner as my inadequate writing skills would allow. The first response that Smart Reply suggested was: “Awesome!”

This stupid, cutting-edge-of-technology phenomenon is nothing new. It’s part of the history of civilization. Whenever science makes a leap forward, entrepreneurs immediately over-apply it.

Remember the brief, ridiculous life of the electric steak knife? This product was occasioned by the commercial success of electric razors and electric toothbrushes and the like. The electric knife featured a moving saw blade. It sold briskly, briefly, until it became apparent that (1) it was ridiculously unnecessary, since meat is quite easy to cut, and (2) it actually made the slicing process a little ... scary.

Likewise, the single-edge razor blade was followed by the marginally better Trac II, which was followed by the giggly-silly Mach3, then the comic-overkill Quattro, and finally the Fusion5, five-blade razors with heads the size of a mature hamster. Watch for the OctoSlice any day now.

In the mid 1800s, clockmakers in America were making great strides in alarm-clock technology, which led to a pathetic effort to extend the technology a bit further. A New York inventor reasoned that if you woke people at, say, 6 a.m., you ought to also feature an “illuminated dial,” so you could read what time it was in the dark! The boys in the workshop got right on it.

The mechanical illuminated dial featured a sleeve at the top of the clock into which you would insert an unlit kitchen match. When the alarm went off, the sleeve would whip around 180 degrees, striking the head of the match against a sandpaper surface. The match would ignite. Voila! An illuminated dial! Alas, it turned out the centrifugal force unleashed by this contraption sometimes flung the lighted match out of its sleeve and onto the bedclothes.

In the words of Smart Compose, the vaunted Illuminated Dial went up in pants size flames.

Email Gene Weingarten at weingarten@washpost.com.
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