By Dmitry Mazin.
Illustrations by Sean McOmber.
We’ve awaited the age of artificial intelligence for decades. In our fantasies, AI is usually humanoid, straight out of the Jetsons. But while we anticipate the great arrival of the robotic butlers, AI has, in fact, already quietly permeated the fabric of our daily lives — from shopping, to driving, to communication.
Consider autocorrect, an AI-driven input assistant so ubiquitous that you likely don’t even realize how much it impacts your life. Without it, typing on a smartphone would be exceedingly difficult. That utility comes with a price, however, as autocorrect has begun to significantly alter the way we communicate.
Though you probably first encountered autocorrect as telltale squiggly red lines under your spelling mistakes, its breakthrough came with the smartphone. As you mash the tiny keys on your phone’s virtual keyboard, a sophisticated language model, working behind the scenes, determines which keys you actually intended to press. The iPhone, for example, invisibly enlarges those keys you are likely to hit next, so they are harder to miss. Naturally, spelling is automatically checked in the process. This hybrid of input assistance and spellchecking is what we now know as autocorrect.
Prior to autocorrect, spellcheck was constrained to word processors. Its impact was limited, affecting primarily formal documents like letters and essays. Now, thanks to autocorrect, which mediates everything typed on a smartphone — casual and formal speech included — spellcheck is essentially universal. While the Standard English which spell check enforces may be preferable within the context of a formal document, this isn’t necessarily the case elsewhere.
Autocorrect’s insistence on “ducking” (instead of the much coarser exclamation) is infamous, but its rigidity goes beyond cursing. If you actually prefer the spelling “miniscule,” you must wrestle with autocorrect. And because actual humans adapt quickly to change (and even anticipate it), a human-edited dictionary like Merriam-Webster actually includes words that autocorrect doesn’t, such as “abridgement.”
Autocorrect fundamentally alters English. Since there are many ways to spell most English sounds, its spelling tends to drift. Autocorrect slows this evolution, enforcing Standard English in spaces where novel or informal spellings would have previously gone unmolested. Indeed, a 2011 study concluded that in a 20-year period prior to the introduction of autocorrect, spellcheck was already largely responsible for an accelerating death of English words, while the creation of new words contracted sharply, causing an actual shrinkage of the English lexicon.
Nevertheless, autocorrect undeniably provides a net benefit. Using our smartphones would simply be intractable without it. However, a new class of input assistant AIs operates on a level beyond spelling, affecting the very way we choose our words. These AIs cross into dangerous territory, threatening to render the English language into lexical pink slime.
In 2014, years after the iPhone’s initial release, typing on a smartphone apparently remained too slow. With iOS 9, Apple launched a new product called QuickType, a small bar above the keyboard which automatically suggests the next word in a sentence, dramatically reducing the need for typing itself. “Typing as you know it might soon be a thing of the past,” Apple promised. For simple phrases like “on my way,” QuickType works perfectly, and for more complex phrases, its suggestions are often good enough. Read more “Pink Lexical Goop: The Dark Side of Autocorrect”