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Microsoft’s new AI can generate smart to-do lists from your emails

Help me out of email hell AI, you're my only hope!

Researchers from the University of Washington and Microsoft’s AI team today unveiled a ‘Smart To-Do’ tool for automatically generating task lists from emails.

Smart To-Do is an AI feature that scans your outgoing emails for actionable text and turns your self-given tasks into items on an automatically generated to-do list.

If, for example, you tell your boss that you’ll give them an update on the Amsterdam account by noon on Wednesday, the AI will put something like “update the boss on the Amsterdam account” on your to-do list with the applicable deadline.

Credit: Mukherjee, et. al,
Examples of text selected for task generation.

The (hopefully) upcoming feature was revealed in a pre-print research paper published on arXiv today. According to the paper:

In this work, we introduce the task of automatically generating To-Do items from email context and meta-data to assist users with following up on their promised actions (also referred to as commitments in this work). Given an email, its temporal context (i.e. thread), and associated meta-data like the name of the sender and recipient, we want to generate a short and succinct To-Do item for the task mentioned in the email.

It’s pretty easy to see how this could be incredibly useful. Instead of leaving your inbox to go set up your to-do list before you forget, you could just hunker down and really answer all of your emails knowing the AI would jot down your commitments.

The team had to build the system basically from scratch. To the best of our knowledge, no similar AI system exists, and that means Microsoft had to develop everything from the task parameters to the datasets its deep neural networks were trained on. The result is a robust pipeline for converting text to tasks in the email environment that, according to the research paper, just works.

Credit: Mukherjee, et. al,

We can’t wait to give Smart To-Do a try, but there is a catch. There’s no guarantee it’ll actually end up in Outlook or other services any time soon – pre-print papers are always subject to change, and big tech often works on features that never end up in production.

But we did manage to find this official stub for Smart To-Do on Microsoft‘s research site. Apparently the researchers will present Smart To-Do at the Annual Conference of the Association for Computational Linguistics (ACL 2020), which is being held online in June. This bodes well for the feature’s future and we can expect a lot more information about it then.

We reached out to Microsoft to find out if and when Smart To-Do was coming to email, we’ll update this article as soon as we hear back.

Published May 14, 2020 — 19:00 UTC