Service sorts messy email inbox into tidy to-do list

March 4, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
How would you feel about a total stranger going through your email? That's the question posed by a Stanford University research project. The answer has everything to do with what you get in return.

You probably wouldn't hand your car keys to a total stranger -- unless that stranger is a valet parking attendant. In fact, some cars come with a special key that limits what valets can do.

"You know that they can drive the car, but they can't open the trunk; so likewise, we're thinking about what it would be like to have valet software," Professor Michael Bernstein said.

Bernstein is an advisor on a graduate research project called EmailValet. Just like valet parking, it aims to save you time and energy by having an assistant comb through your Gmail inbox for you.

"So the assistant can see a limited amount of their emails, they can perform a very limited amount of actions based on the user's requests, and they can help them cope with email overload," Ph.D. student Nicolas Kokkalis said.

Kokkalis created a program where for about $2 a day per user, an assistant -- who works part time from home -- can read just the emails you want them to see and turn your messy inbox into a tidy to-do list.

It's something computers just aren't good at on their own.

"People do a much better job than machines at the humble creativity of negotiating everyday life," Professor Scott Klemmer said.

Of course, you can make that to-do list yourself, but the study found people who used an assistant wound up actually doing more of the tasks on their lists."

So an assistant can help you be ultra-productive, but how many people actually want a perfect stranger going through their email? Well, the study found something surprising.

"We realized that people get less concerned about privacy when they start receiving benefits form a system," Kokkalis said.

Though less than 4 percent of online survey respondents initially said they'd share their inbox, about 90 percent of those who actually used the service wanted to keep it.

Sadly for them, it's still just a research project -- but it could become a business...

"There's a lot of university projects, such as Google I think, that came out of this floor," Kokkalis said.


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