How your cell phone's autocorrect software works, and why it's getting better.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
July 13 2010 5:22 PM

Yes, Ill Matty You

How your cell phone's autocorrect software works, and why it's getting better.

(Continued from Page 1)

While these efforts are helpful, I don't think I've ever encountered an autocorrect system that didn't bother me in some way; I couldn't tell you, for instance, whether the iPhone, Android, or BlackBerry offers a better system, because they're all pretty similar, and I mainly remember their goofs, not their successes. Indeed, I often find myself wishing for deeper autocorrection intelligence—instead of merely paying attention to what I re-correct, why can't the phone look at the context of my sentence, or my entire conversation, in order to guess what I'm going for? You try to type "meth addicts" into your phone, but it turns it into "method addicts." Certainly it's possible that you were referring to actors who couldn't get out of character, but shouldn't the phone infer that that's not likely—that in the overwhelming majority of cases, the word preceding "addicts" in that sentence should be "meth," not "method"?

Taylor says that these more advanced methods may be on the horizon. As phones get faster and can store larger dictionaries, their autocorrection systems will be able to take a deeper, more meaningful look at your sentence before offering a word choice. * The other promise is crowdsourcing—if phones begin to base their suggestions on what other people are typing on the Web, they can not only become better at correcting your misspellings, but they might also be able to predict full phrases or sentences that you're aiming for.

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Imagine you start an e-mail with the subject line "Sick today." As soon as you begin writing the first couple of words, "I'm not," your phone—which knows that it's a Monday, that you've been partying all weekend, and has seen other people type such messages before—offers a suggestion: "I'm not feeling well today." The model is not that different from Google Suggest—except you'd see suggestions in e-mail, text messages, and everywhere else in your phone. Taylor notes that there are substantial privacy concerns with this approach—you would essentially be sending everything you type to servers in the Web—and phone makers would likely incorporate them only on an opt-in basis, if at all. Still, some users may be willing to make that trade-off. "We have some prototypes running here, and it's funny and freaky to watch those demos—at how good the phone can be at predicting what you mean," Taylor says.

One more note about autocorrection: Pretty much the first thing we all do when testing out a text-entry system is look up profanity. Does the phone offer suggestions for the word fuck? Will it suggest shit when you type in sgit? In most cases, the answer is no. "Our linguists spend a fair amount of time monitoring the current state of the art in objectionable words to make sure they stay out of our language models," Taylor says. "We know that we can put words in people's mouths, and we want to be careful not to put the wrong word." So perhaps political correctness explains why the iPhone will correct "hell" to "he'll" but not "well" to "we'll." To which I say, WTF?!

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Correction, July 14, 2010: Originally this article incorrectly stated that cell phones store a "corpus" of words. While a corpus of text is used to seed to phone autocorrection systems, phones themselves have a dictionary. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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