Could Autocomplete Do for Spelling What the Calculator Did for Arithmetic?

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April 4 2012 7:19 PM

You Autocomplete Me

Could Web-search algorithms make spelling a lost art?

Art for autocorrect.

Robert Neubecker.

Want to know more about Brittany Griner, the 6-foot-8 dunking phenom who helped Baylor’s women’s basketball team win a national championship on Tuesday night? How about the war in Afganistan, the morgage crisis, and American Idle? Go ahead and Google it.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

“Did you mean: American Idol?” Google asks. Oops. Sure did. With each of the other misspellings above, Google is so confident it knows what you meant that it doesn’t even bother to ask. “Showing results for brittney griner,” it notes, before offering, in small text, an option to “search instead for brittany griner.” (Microsoft’s Bing search engine does the same thing, with slightly altered wording.)

Over the past five years, Web browsers have become better at spelling than most humans. In a 2008 Slate piece, Chris Wilson noted that browsers had surpassed traditional spell-check programs as well. Microsoft Word will turn morgage into mortgage, but it sees nothing wrong with American Idle, and it thinks the way to fix Brittany Griner is to make her a Grinner or a Grinder. And while Word’s spell-check function has stagnated, browsers get smarter by the day, assimilating new search data in real time. Search engines don’t just catch errors; they prevent you from making them in the first place. To find the latest on Afghanistan, just type “Afg” and select from the options in the drop-down autocomplete menu.

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This functionality will soon be coming to a word processor near you: Last month, Google began applying similar algorithms to the spell-check feature on Google Docs, marking one of the first attempts to apply Web-based, contextual spell-checking to a word-processing program. Smartphone autocorrect tools are also improving, though embarrassing errors remain all too common. And mobile personal-assistant tools like Siri and Voice Actions for Android combine cutting-edge voice-recognition technology with search data to cut out the need for typing entirely.

With spelling becoming more and more optional, it’s easy to draw a parallel to the changing nature of arithmetic. Once upon a time, if you wanted to divide 154 by 19.6, you had to get out a pen and paper. Now, an electronic calculator—or the calculator on your computer or your watch or your iPhone—will do it for you. Just as long division has become all but obsolete, could autocomplete make spelling a lost art—something for kids to learn in elementary school, never to use again?

Probably not. Still, it’s a big improvement over what has come before.

Kids may struggle equally with spelling and arithmetic, but the latter is vastly easier for machines. Numerical calculations, which follow simple, unchanging rules, are right in a computer’s wheelhouse: Fourteen times eleven is 154 no matter what the context. By contrast, complement is a correct spelling if you’re talking about two things that go together but a spelling error if you’re doling out praise. To tell the difference, a computer needs to do something much harder than consult its internal dictionary. It needs to understand the meaning of your sentence. That’s what artificial intelligence researchers call a “hard problem.”

A “hard problem,” in AI, is more than just a problem that’s tough to figure out. Rather, it’s a problem that can’t be solved without also solving the fundamental problem of the field: how to make a computer think like a human.