With Clutter, Microsoft is less cautious about bringing machine learning to the masses

The research group hasn't always been ready to make such tools available

Microsoft Delve in action

Microsoft Delve in action

Microsoft's new Clutter feature for cleaning up your inbox automatically is the latest of several tools based on machine learning that the Office team thinks are ready for prime time. In fact, it's the latest of many machine learning tools that researchers at Microsoft have developed over the years. But this time, Microsoft is confident enough to make them broadly available.

Like Delve, which suggests relevant documents and discussions from your colleagues, it uses the Office Graph to understand who you actually connect to and collaborate with and who is just interrupting you. Delve makes lists like "presentations you've seen in meetings" by cross-referencing who was at the meetings you were invited to, what files they've saved and the timestamp on files that were presented at the right time to be in the meeting.

That could feel creepy if you think about the system watching you, and it's certainly confidential information you wouldn't want your competitors to see, so it won't find files that haven't been shared with you. But when you use it, if Delve gets it right, it just feels useful.

Clutter will take messages that aren't spam but aren't actually useful either, whether they're special offers from a loyalty card or too-widely distributed messages about events happening in a distant office. Clutter uses the Office Graph to know who you're connected to as well as watching how you've reacted to similar messages.

Machine learning makes it more sophisticated than filing messages from iTunes just because a lot of other people have filed those messages; if you always open and read them and click the links, Clutter isn't likely to hide them away.

This idea of automatically triaging and arranging email isn't new. Google's new Inbox tool has some similar ideas -- but so did Xobni, a startup that Yahoo bought some years ago that tried to turn your inbox into a social network by showing who you interacted with most often.

Outlook.com, Microsoft's consumer webmail service, has offered to sweep newsletters into their own folder automatically for quite some time, but it hasn't moved personal emails. And back in 2006, Microsoft Research produced a tool called SNARF that let you sort your inbox to prioritize messages from people you frequently mailed and replied to.

But until this year, even though machine learning has advanced significantly, Microsoft included only simpler tools from its research group in Outlook. The warning if you press Send on a button that mentions an attachment without attaching a file, and the variably successful Suggested Meetings feature that extracts times and places from incoming email, ready to turn into an appointment, both started as research projects.

Speaking earlier this year, Office general manager Julia White explained that the reason Microsoft has been so cautious about rolling out machine learning tools using the Office graph to triage email is the concern about alienating users.

"How do I come to my email and know I should always respond to this person first, because I always do that?" White said. "Who am I meeting with most, who am I falling out of touch with, who did I used to keep up with that I don't anymore?"

The benefits are obvious and fit well with Microsoft's message about improving productivity. But she said Microsoft had to be thoughtful about walking the line between being useful and being intrusive.

"It's tricky; we've been working on machine learning and the inbox for a long time and we have various models, but people have the way they want it to work. So if you pick a model and it isn't the model that person wants, they don't like it, they immediately turn it off. And you have to make it adaptable enough and visible enough that the user can see what model it's applying, so they can flip it around and control it. The technology is there, but you have to do it right. The moment it does something wrong or feels creepy, it's out," White said.

Clutter is being offered first to those who sign up for the Office 365 First Release option, for businesses that want to get new features straight away, and it's off by default until each user turns it on. It files messages into a folder that you can see in Outlook, Outlook Web Access and on just about any device that connects to Exchange to collect your email.

Presumably, Microsoft is betting that being able to see what's been moved and quickly put it back is enough to avoid the creepy feeling.

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Mary Branscombe

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