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

Mary Branscombe | Nov. 13, 2014
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.

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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