Comedy great Bill Burr has a bit where he says, “Did you ever spell a word so bad that your spell check has absolutely no clue what you’re trying to spell? What do you end up getting? You end up getting, like, a question mark. You got a million dollars of technology just looking back at you like, You got me, buddy. Which is pretty amazing because I have all the words, and that doesn’t look like any of them”
This joke prompted me to research how does basic spell check work. It’s a long answer, but the main ingredient is called the Minimum Edit Distance Algorithm. The minimum edit distance is the distance between two strings. In regard to spell check, the algorithm is calculating the distance between the misspelled word you typed and the word you probably meant to type. Now, I could stumble my way through an explanation, but instead I choose to preserve my thin veal of credibility and will forward you to a YouTube video from Stanford University Professor Dan Jurafsky.
After years of patiently fixing all of our grammatical mistakes, the algorithms behind spell check have branched and evolved beyond simple word suggestions. They have become digital wordsmiths, such as Bloomberg’s AI journalist named Cyborg. Cyborg excels at ingesting quarterly earnings reports and churning out readable stories for a broad audience. In contrast, this same technology powers AI that can churn out fake news articles faster than any human moderator can flag them.
So how/when did spell check get so smart? Part of the answer is nonchalantly written in Microsoft’s Diagnostics, feedback, and privacy statement. “If you choose to turn on Improve inking & typing, Microsoft will collect samples of the content you type or write to improve features such as handwriting recognition, autocompletion, next word prediction and spelling correction, and we use this data in the aggregate to improve the inking and typing feature for all users.” In case you were wondering, a fresh install of Microsoft Windows has this feature enabled by default. The end-user has to disable it manually.
To be clear, I am in no way attempting to bash Microsoft for collecting this data. I think whoever reads this should be aware of the mechanisms behind the machines that have morphed from useful to indispensable. The motivation is simple. To make these algorithms better, they need lots of data and reinforcement. Here’s an interesting factoid, even hitting the ignore button teaches the AI something. It’s like saying thanks but no thanks, but to the AI it’s an excellent reason to ask its programmers Why did user X9174BG ignore my suggestion? Considering that Microsoft office has 1.2 billion users, the data is bountiful.
All this data is a treasure trove for Natural language processors (see image above). Natural language processing (NLP) refers to the branch of computer science—and more specifically, the branch of artificial intelligence or AI concerned with giving computers the ability to understand text and spoken words in much the same way human beings can. And because I can’t write about tech without thinking about SciFi. Ladies and Gentleman, I present to you a clip from the film Her (2006).
So, where are we today? While not on the autonomous level, like Samantha from the film referenced above. Look no further than Unfortunately.io. Unfortunately.io is a startup that provides customers with AI-generated rejection emails. Oh, and when I say startup, I really mean startup. The domain name for the company was literally registered last week (3/1/21). One of the steps to becoming a member of the service is to submit a rejection email that you have composed. Gotta feed that AI machine. Unfortunately.io wants to solve the problem of telling other would-be startups, “No”. Which while not as deflating as receiving a rejection notice, can still present mental stress on the bearer of bad news. So why not outsource this emotional burden to a bot with zero feelings. Sounds like a solid business model. The way I see it, it won’t be long before we see similar features incorporated into dating apps like Bumble, or Match.com.
If you’ve gotten this far into this blog post I would like to say. Don’t Panic. The robots that live in the cloud are not ready to be your pen pal or tell your Ex to loose your number, but they are watching, and they are learning with each and every keystroke.