Automatically addressing mail: SEAmail, a semantic e-mail addressing system, lets users send messages without necessarily knowing recipients’ e-mail addresses or even names. An interface, shown above, is used to define the characteristics of intended recipients, and the system takes care of the rest.
“This technology has clear benefits, but it’s also ripe for misuse,” says Oren Etzioni, director of the Turing Center at the University of Washington. “The technical issues are solvable. The tricky things are the social issues. How do we create a workable system, given the vagaries of human nature?” In particular, Etzioni worries that, if the tool were broadly available, some people would receive overwhelming amounts of mail, without a good way to limit it. While semantic tools could be used to create filters for e-mails coming in, he says that there’s no clear way to control the flow of incoming mail without also losing out on some of the serendipitous messages that make such a system useful.
Assuming that worries about spam could be properly resolved, semantic e-mail addressing might be interesting in combination with other semantic approaches, says Luke McDowell, an assistant professor of computer science at the United States Naval Academy, in Annapolis, MD. McDowell worked on a system that extracted information from the body of e-mails to simplify the process of planning parties and agreeing on meeting times. In general, he says, semantic tools could help people manage their e-mails better by using contextual knowledge to automate tasks.
SEAmail will be used at Stanford later this year as part of a larger “digital department” project that aims to introduce several semantic technologies, Genesereth says. The computer-science department will use the system first, but the plan is for the technology to spread through the university until everyone has the option of using SEAmail. He sees the technology as having a lot of potential for internal use by large businesses, for which its benefits far outweigh the potential for abuse. However, with more refinement, he says, it could eventually become a tool for the broader Internet too.