Big Data On The Keyboard

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The Information Age has the
potential to overwhelm. When that
happens on a technical front –
when the volume of data is so
large that traditional databases
cannot handle it, or not handle it
well – the industry refers to the
phenomenon as “big data.” The
term has even come to refer to the
technological processing that takes
place with the vast amounts of
data.

Thus, any time a category of data
contains billions (or even trillions)
of records from all over the web
and other sources, we are talking
about big data. Often we don’t
even notice the “big data” aspect
of our daily encounters with
technology, such as when it comes
to the autocorrect feature on
mobile devices, word-processing
programs, email clients and more.

Autocorrect and Word Suggest
Despite the often comical
renditions provided by the
autocorrect feature – to the extent
that there are any number of
websites devoted to showcasing the
humorous (and often racy) errors –
the capacity of the device to correct
your typing and even predict your
next word is unusually helpful, as
it saves you from the
embarrassment of the typos your
fingers typed.
It is also daunting, if you think
about it. Nearly any combination of
letter that you type in nearly any
sequence will yield (mostly)
reasonable suggestions by your
smartphone. When you factor in
the programmable capacity for
foreign languages, as well, and the
“swipe” option of many smartphone
keyboards, the near-infinite number
of combinations is a matter of big
data, indeed.
Word-suggest and autocorrect work
based on an algorithm that
essentially checks the combination
of letters that you type against the
dictionary that is loaded into your
smartphone – and there is more
than one dictionary available. For
example, every time I type in a
foreign alphabet, my phone offers
me a dictionary in that language.
When the letters you’ve typed
match findings in the dictionary,
the smartphone offers those
matches as possibilities for the
word you are typing. If correct,
accepting the suggested work
abbreviates your typing time and
makes your smartphone
communication more efficient. If no
match is found, then the phone is
programmed to offer alternatives,
some of which are correct, some of
which make sense, even if they
weren’t what you’d had in mind,
and some of which provide the
fodder for the comical online
autocorrect compilations.
Finding the Right Words
Programmers face some challenges
in determining which key strokes
yield which suggested words,
including:

1. Creating a comprehensive
dictionary – one that isn’t
watered down, but is still
manageable and modern –
including the modern slang
that is likely to show up in
text messages, for example.

2. Determining a language
model that has no
significant deficits – one that
examines the words you are
typing in their context and
offers an educated
suggestion, as it were, for the
correct spelling.

That is, if you type “taxos,” did you
mean “taxis” or “tacos”? Your
keyboard offers both options. If,
however, you had intended to type
“taxes,” you will need the
contextual value of “there’s nothing
sure but death and….” for your
keyboard to suggest “taxes.” If you
mistakenly type “taxos,” only the
most sophisticated autocorrects will
get it right; otherwise, you are still
contending with the choice of taxis
or tacos (or taxos). Anyone who has
used autocorrect knows to be
impressed by the frequency with
which it chooses the correct term
to suggest.

How Does the Keyboard Know?

The spell-checker of Google’s search
engine learns your preferences and
corrects accordingly. Most phone
keypads, however, are less
sophisticated – in part because
collecting the record of people’s
typing and creating a database
from it would be a violation of
everyone’s right to privacy.

The autocorrect dictionary gleans
its words from a corpus of articles
that are available in the public
domain. Programmers have devised
a course of analysis that pays
attention to the way we organize
our sentences, the prominence and
repetition of any given word,
spelling and possible transposition
and, of course, the keyboard layout
that makes hitting the wrong key
all too easy.

That said, when you correct an
autocorrected word, your phone
learns the spelling you prefer. This
is very common in proper nouns or
created words, such as company
jargon.
Where Big Data Comes In
Without big data to manage the
volume of potential letter
configurations, there’d be very
little to talk about with regard to
smart keyboards; yet, big data
grants the smart keyboards even
more promise than the tools they
provide thus far. As the phone
technology becomes able to store
more information, the phone
dictionaries will become not only
larger, but also smarter.

As we move into the future,
keyboard developers will use big
data and machine learning to
improve all kinds of keyboard-
dependent and context-based
functions for an improved
experience across the (key)board.

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