The first time I used the iPhone’s soft keyboard, I laughed at it. Hunting and pecking like an old man and still getting things wrong, I felt ridiculous using it. Then, the person whose iPhone I was using gave me a tip. Just go for it. Throw your thumbs around. See what happens. Smoothly scrolling across a fully rendered website had convinced me that I wanted a good touchscreen phone; discovering the power of autocorrect convinced me that such a phone could exist.
Quirky as it is, autocorrect has changed the way people produce text. Typing an email on a touchscreen phone is both faster and cleaner than it was even at the peak of CrackBerry fever. Autocorrect has salvaged countless billions of words, and saved the endangered apostrophe from near-certain extinction. Its next target is more ambitious: Autocorrect is out to kill the space bar.
At the very least, it’s proving that it could. A forthcoming update to the popular Android keyboard SwiftKey includes a feature called Smart Space, which automatically inserts spaces into strings of text. Here’s how that works in practice:
But things are so much more exciting in theory. Here’s what it could mean: An end to manual word spacing. “You could type a whole sentence without using a space,” SwiftKey’s Joe Braidwood told me. “You could write an entire essay, though you might get every word you want. Technically you could write a novel without spaces.” No more slapping the spacebar every half-second. No more stretching your thumbs.
SwiftKey’s programmers aren’t the first to attack the problem of automatic word spacing. Internet companies and data scientists, both of whom deal with large bodies of inconsistently spaced words, have been grappling with the concept for years. Korea is a hotbed for this kind of research on account of its language’s complex spacing rules — if someone nails automatic spacing in Korean, they’ve probably nailed it for most languages.
Most automatic word-spacing models are designed with Big Data in mind. This one, by Seong-Bae Park of Kyungpook National University, proposes a self-organizing model for automatic spacing for the purposes of “information retrieval,” not text input. That technology, however, has obvious uses elsewhere. Park’s name can also be found on a patent for automatic space insertion in text messaging. And both iOS and Android already support basic space insertion, mostly on a two-word level. (“Youthere?” becomes “You there?”, etc.)
SwiftKey started down this path almost by accident. “We already use natural language processing,” says Braidwood, “and [the software was] already doing quite complicated things with language anyway.” When they started looking into automatic space insertion — mostly “to eliminate frustrating moments” — they realized they were already close to a solution. The software analyzes words in clusters of three, looking backwards as well as predicting what’s coming next, correcting mistaken word choices as needed. (“Are you” might become “see you” if the last word is “soon.”) SwiftKey’s programmers found that, with some modification, their algorithms were also fairly good at guessing where spaces belong in short strings of text.
Braidwood is careful to say that SwiftKey’s intention isn’t to kill the space bar, just to make typing easier. But it raises the possibility, which I had never even considered: I mean, what if we just left spacing to the machines? What if typing wasn’t segmented by the staccato slap of the spacebar? How much faster would typing be?