Auto-(in)correct: Emergent Laziness?

Is it Google? Is it LG? Or is it emergence?

I am leasing an LG tablet running Android to go with my phone service. I thought the large screen and consequently larger keyboard would make my life easier. The first several days of use, however, have been unreasonably annoying. The salesperson had said that this device would be slave to my LG Android cell phone, but my settings did not seem to carry over. What’s worse, no matter how much I dig through menu trees to get to certain settings I’m looking for, I can’t find them. For example, I may want autocorrect off, or I may not want the latest e-mail in my inbox to be previewed. (I prefer to see a bird’s-eye view of all the recent e-mails, packed as tightly as possible, and I can usually set this very quickly and easily, but not on this tablet.) The reasons might range from being about to go to class and teach in a few minutes and not wanting to think about that e-mail about a committee issue that just arrived right at the moment, and I don’t want Gmail to parade it in front of me.

So, the settings seem to be very well hidden, or maybe not even available to the user anymore (because that has been the trend in computer-and-Internet technology: Make the user think less, and have less control; so-called intelligent software will decide all your preferences for you).

And perhaps the software can deduce (or, more likely, induce) your preferences as they were at a certain time under a certain set of circumstances, but human beings expect the freedom to change their minds. Software doesn’t seem to allow this.

Furthermore, crowd-sourcing is considered the ultimate intelligence. I know and understand the algorithms behind most of these ideas, and totally agree that they are beautiful and awesome (and really fun). However, engineers, programmers, mathematicians, and other nerds (like me) finding something super-fun should not be how life is redesigned. The crowd-sourcing of spelling and automatic correction is leading us from artificial intelligence to natural laziness. My device wants to change “I’m” to “imma”. (Before you decry that I’m also ignorant and don’t know to put a period inside the quotation marks, read my disclaimer about switching to British/logical punctuation.) Am I now forced to appear like I have abandoned capitalization, and to have picked up an unnecessarily excessively colloquial form of spelling. And if I had, then fine, but I haven’t.

It gets worse. The learning algorithm is not learning, at least not from me. The following has now happened with several phrases and words on this new tablet, and I’ve looked further into altering this setting, to no avail.

When I type “I will”, it automatically replaces it with “I silk”. If I backspace and type “I will” again, it replaces it again. And it doesn’t learn from my actions; I have patiently (and later on, a further dozen or so times, impatiently) retyped “I will” more than 30 times, only to watch Gmail running on my Android LG device switch it back to “I silk” immediately.[1]

Where did this come from? Is there a band called “I silk”? Is this a new phrase that’s in these days, and I haven’t been overhearing my students enough to know about it?

Or is it because earlier that day, I tried to write “I seek to …” where the ‘seek’ was autocorrected to ‘silk’? (for who knows what reason)

And what happens when this behavior is pushed beyond e-mail on a tablet, and I’m not able (or allowed) to write either “I will” or “I seek” as I type a blog entry such as this on my laptop, or as I try to type an e-mail to explain what’s going wrong to Google’s tech support, or someone else’s tech support?

This really doesn’t make sense. Shouldn’t machine learning give us results that make sense? (That used to be the idea.) Now, perhaps, it’s just supposed to give us results that are popular or common. It seems we’re not building artificial intelligence; we’re building artificial commonality.

This is not a rant for elitism (which, anyway, is also used in machine learning, in evolutionary algorithms). It’s about the loss of freedom of speech, to be able to say what one is trying to say the exact way one wants to say it. The ability for clear, unequivocal communication is not something to be eliminated from the human experience; it is something to continue to strive for. Likewise, convenience over freedom (or over accuracy) is not a good choice of values. In the end, the person pushing little buttons with letters marked on them will be held responsible for the content. Shouldn’t that person be in charge of what words appear when they push the little buttons? Shouldn’t we at least be able to turn off auto-correct, or have some control over when it applies?

This is being taken away, little by little. “Oh, it’s just a tablet.” … “Oh, it’s just an e-mail. Nobody expects it to be spelled correctly.” Pretty soon, no one will be able to spell anything correctly, even if they know how to, because their devices won’t allow them to have that little bit of control.


[1] Also, do not even try to write in a foreign language, or mix English and Turkish in one sentence. In an early e-mail I wrote on this device, I had to repeat the letter ‘i’ (which appeared only once in the actual word) five times (for a total of six ‘i‘s) for it to stop auto-(in)correcting “geliyorum” to something like “Selma”. I had to type “geliiiiiiyorum”.