by R.L.G. | BERLIN
THIS week’s technology news is all Apple, all the time. The Californian gadget-maker announced two new iPhones and a new Apple Watch in its long-awaited presentation on Tuesday. But the iPhone was on the mind of your columnist this week for a different reason. A hurried e-mail typed with overlarge fingers on the tiny screen resulted in more than a few typos. Apple corrects a few of these on the fly; others are underlined, and when the underlined word is tapped, a replacement is suggested. In this case, the replacement suggested was “tucking”, to complete the sequence “how tucking much”.
Johnson omits spelling the word out to make a point: the iPhone knew full well what I intended, for the same reason the reader does. At this moment, the sequence “how tucking much” appears only once on the entire internet (though this column will change that). The phrase I was trying to type appears on 355,000 pages, according to Google.
Despite its many amusing mistakes, autocorrect (on various platforms) is surprisingly good. Average typos, where a nearby letter is substituted for the original one, are quite easy to fix, especially when the word actually typed is nonsense. Type in “iphome” into your iPhone, and it will be corrected with Apple’s preferred capitalisation and all.
But autocorrect does much more. As this story in Wired shows, already in the 1990s Microsoft was realising software’s potential to fix not just typos but legitimate mistakes like “seperate” for “separate”. (If one intends to type “seperate” for some reason, as I have just done, one need only go back and retype it a second time; Word backs off.) Such tools are even more effective in the age of cloud computing and big data. Apple’s phones probably use the cloud to search a huge corpus of real text, predicting what people intended to type. Surrounding words can help disambiguate the right meaning from a possible but unlikely one. (The same seems to be the case for speech recognition, which we explained here.) So common mistakes like “could of” can be corrected to “could have”, and the unlikely “heading home mow” can be changed to “heading home now”. Apple claims its new iOS8 operating system will be more predictive and responsive to context, noting whether you’re texting (and so expecting more informal language) or e-mailing (more formal), and even whether you’re e-mailing colleagues or your spouse.
So what’s going on when software primly dances around some of the English language’s most common words? Apple did not reply to your columnist’s request for more information. But Microsoft explained to Wired that “you can’t exactly suggest the correct spelling of mothrefucker.” Those who (like your columnist) lack the typical American fear and loathing of swear words might well ask “Why on earth not? Autocorrect is not my mother.” But if the typical Anglo-Saxon four-letter words do not bother you, imagine autocorrect suggesting the proper spelling of various racial slurs, and you can see why software is built with lists of words to avoid or ignore. Different software works in different ways. In the iPhone’s case, common swear words, spelled correctly, will not be changed. But if you misspell them, the correct spelling will not be suggested—instead, a more innocent word like tuck, count, sick or clock or will be recommended. The same is true if you correctly type the swear word, then a space and a backspace. It is as if autocorrect is offering you a second chance.
This is perhaps the best solution to a tricky situation. Everyone uses the odd swear word—Mitt Romney must be the only person in the world who hollers out “H-E-double-hockey-sticks” in flash of anger. But text messages and e-mails have a life of their own after they leave their senders’ fingers, and profanity-laced ones can come back to bite. Everyone hated Clippy, the maddening anthropomorphic paper clip that would appear unbidden in Microsoft Word to say “It looks like you’re writing a letter. Would you like help?” But our modern devices’ software can be a less annoying Clippy at a delicate moment. “It looks like you’re pretty worked up. Are you sure you want to send that?” Not a mother, but a friend with a cooler head.
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