Autocorrect does have a good side, doesn’t it?

Wired has recently published an interesting piece on the history of autocorrect. One important point the author brings up is that, though we seem to focus on the bad side of autocorrect, it certainly is an amazing achievement. That we often miss it probably has to do with the salience of the negative (over the positive), a phenomenon known as negativity bias. (Why can’t we be happy?) The author fleshes this particular case out a bit further:

Given how successful autocorrect is, how indispensable it has become, why do we stay so fixated on the errors? It’s not just because they represent unsolicited intrusions of nonsense into our glassy corporate memoranda. It goes beyond that. The possibility of linguistic communication is grounded in the fact of what some philosophers of language have called the principle of charity: The first step in a successful interpretation of an utterance is the belief that it somehow accords with the universe as we understand it. This means that we have a propensity to take a sort of ownership over even our errors, hoping for the possibility of meaning in even the most perverse string of letters. We feel honored to have a companion like autocorrect who trusts that, despite surface clumsiness or nonsense, inside us always smiles an articulate truth.

Here’s another snippet from the article I found particularly interesting:

A commenter on the Language Log blog recently mentioned hearing of an entire dialect in Asia based on phone cupertinos, where teens used the first suggestion from autocomplete instead of their chosen word, thus creating a slang that others couldn’t decode. (It’s similar to the Anglophone teenagers who, in a previous texting era, claimed to have replaced the term of approval cool with that of book because of happenstance T9 input priority.)

Why do we revere the written word?

If you ever ask me to lend you a book, I’ll probably make up some elaborate excuse about why I can’t—that is, if I don’t flatly refuse. I try to keep my books immaculate and I always treat them gently; I know that many people aren’t so pedantic. Thus, rather than risk getting back a damaged book, I just don’t lend them out.

I understand that books will age with time and love, but I do my best to help my books do so gracefully, and not before their time. Thus I’ve been known to send them back to Amazon if they arrive imperfect in any way. I privately weep when I see scuffs at their corners or little indentations… And the surest route to a sour mood is discovering a crease in a page. Books are special to me. It’s probably overly cliche to say that they’re my children, but it’s something like that. Books are lower-maintenance, at least.

I know I’m not the only one. A number of my friends are this way. Jorge Luis Borges was. And perhaps you are, too.

Where does this come from? I think it has a lot to do with sacred texts.

VEYAGANA, BOOK OF CHANTS OF THE LITURGICAL KAUTHUMA SAMHITA OF THE SAMAVEDA

Until a few hundred years ago, writing was quite rare; few could write, and few could read. Thus, only important things were written down, and it took a thing of tremendous importance to be preserved.

Interestingly, Hindu priests originally resisted the transcription of the Vedas because they thought it would make these sacred poems too accessible, too commonplace. Everyday things are not important, and they certainly are not powerful. (There was certainly also an element of fear for their own social status as the purveyors of a scarce resource.) Perhaps this is why, when sacred things were finally committed to writing, we were conditioned to treat them with supreme reverence.

From there we witness a phenomenon known as the cult of the book: texts are often seen as sacred objects, even apart from the contents of their words. Regarding the Lotus Sutra, for example, a Buddhist text, it was promised that anyone who copied, or even paid someone to copy, the text would live a trouble-free life. Similar beliefs were held for other Buddhist texts: Merely seeing or holding them were esteemed as actions of great merit.

This concept has culminated in the modern-day Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, which is thought of as a living guru of the faith. It’s even written in its own, dedicated script. This book is treated with the utmost respect by Sikhs: It is kept on a raised platform, often under a canopy of feathers, and it is never allowed to touch the ground. When in the presence of the book, Sikhs cover their heads and remove their shoes. In Sikh homes, it is not uncommon for this book to have an entire room of its own.

So meticulous is the treatment of the Guru Granth Sahib that it was copied by hand only until 1864, well after the invention of the printing press. Today, most copies are printed, but any copy that exhibits even the most minor of defects is cremated in an elaborate ceremony.

Speaking of printed works in particular, it’s worth noting that the oldest mechanically printed book we know of is the Diamond Sutra, another Buddhist text from China. Fast forwarding to when Gutenberg invented a printing press of his own (though not the world’s first), we can recall that the first book printed in the West was also of a sacred nature: The Holy Bible.

Thus it seems that from this precedent, reaching back to the ancient Brahmans of India, we are conditioned to treat books with respect.

On the other hand, there are plenty of people who are the exact opposite: those who underline and dog-ear freely without thinking twice… the people who make me shudder. What’s up with them?

Translation tech: We’re getting there…

Language barriers seem to be frustrating us more than ever before. What cognitive dissonance it is that in today’s globalized world we can get in touch so easily but still be unable to communicate. For this reason Rosetta Stone is a $300-million company and growing every year, and language-instruction apps like Duolingo and MindSnacks are coming out all the time.

We have fantasies of Matrix-like brain implants that give you instant fluency in any language you’d like to install. Nearly as futuristic but actually existent is Word Lens, an app that translates written language that you point to with your smartphone’s camera (and actually works quite well). The company was recently bought by Google, who is implementing the technology in their Glass productOur dreams of instant communication with speakers of other language are still far off, but we’ve certainly come a long way from pocket phrasebooks.

MuuziiNext up is Muuzii, which promises to be an instant, SMS-based translation service. The basic use-case is this: Two people who don’t speak the same language both have basic cellphones. Person One types a message in his language to Muuzii, and Muuzii quickly responds with the message translated to Person Two’s language. Person One can then forward or sound out the message to get it to Person Two. It’s a subscription-based service (quite reasonable at less than $5/month) that currently works on AT&T but is planned for all U.S. carriers soon.

They have a promotion going on right now where you can try out the service for free from any carrier. I tried it out, and I was somewhat disappointed. Here’s why:

As I see it, Muuzii has three main claims to fame. It follows through on two of them, but flops on the third. One: It’s meant to be fast, and it certainly is. In my tests, the response always came within a second or two. Two: Dumbphones welcome. Since it’s an SMS-based service, you don’t need a smartphone. That’s key; we like to think that everyone has a smartphone these days, but that’s just not the case.

Three: There’s a real, live person doing the translating (supposedly). Here’s where Muuzii doesn’t live up to its potential—at least not yet. The problem with machine-based translators is that they’re not infallible. They generally aren’t good with casual sentences, slang and idioms, first of all. And what if you spell something wrong? What if you tried to write something, but inadvertently spelled a different word? An actual person would see what you meant, but not a machine. I was really excited to hear that Muuzii has “a robust team of skilled linguists on-call 24/7,” because such a team could translate so much better than a machine. But in practice, Muuzii can’t seem to translate spelling errors. In my test, I sent the query:

did the untied sttates win the game agains Germanny?

And Muuzii replied in Spanish:

¿los sttates desatados ganó el juego agains Germanny?

The translation is interesting. Muuzii caught that sttates was meant to be plural, even if it couldn’t manage to translate it. Strangly, it gave me the verb conjugation ganó, which is for third-person singular, when it had already identified the subject as plural. It correctly translated untied (plural) as desatados, but it didn’t realize that I actually meant united rather than untied.

I believe a “robust team of skilled linguists” would have been able to translate my original sentence perfectly. Maybe they would have included fun spelling errors of their own—but that’s a discussion for a class on translation theory. Perhaps it’s the case that Muuzii isn’t showcasing the true extent of their product during this free trial (which would be a shame, because then what’s the point?), or maybe they’re simply over-promising.