Lost in yesterday’s coverage of the Apple Watch was a small software feature that, when demonstrated on the stage of the Flint Center, earned brief but vigorous applause from the audience. It was the watch’s ability to scan incoming messages and suggest possible responses. The Verge’s live-blogging crew were wowed:
The example Apple presented was pretty rudimentary. The incoming message included the question “Are you going with Love Shack or Wild Thing?” To which the watch suggested three possible answers: Love Shack, Wild Thing, Not Sure. Big whoop. In terms of natural language processing, that’s like Watson with a lobotomy.
But it was just a taste of a much more sophisticated “predictive text” capability, called QuickType, that Apple has built into the latest version of its smartphone operating system. “iOS 8 predicts what you’ll say next,” explains the company. “No matter whom you’re saying it to.”
Now you can write entire sentences with a few taps. Because as you type, you’ll see choices of words or phrases you’d probably type next, based on your past conversations and writing style. iOS 8 takes into account the casual style you might use in messages and the more formal language you probably use in Mail. It also adjusts based on the person you’re communicating with, because your choice of words is likely more laid back with your spouse than with your boss.
Now, this may all turn out to be a clumsy parlor trick. If the system isn’t adept at mimicking a user’s writing style and matching it to the intended recipient — if it doesn’t nail both text and context — the predictive-text feature will rarely be used, except for purposes of making “stupid robot” jokes. But if the feature actually turns out to be “good enough” — or if our conversational expectations devolve to a point where the automated messages feel acceptable — then it will mark a breakthrough in the automation of communication and even thought. We’ll begin allowing our computers to speak for us.
Is that a development to be welcomed? It seems more than a little weird that Apple’s developers would get excited about an algorithm that will converse with your spouse on your behalf, channeling the “laid back” tone you deploy for conjugal chitchat. The programmers seem to assume that romantic partners are desperate to trade intimacy for efficiency. I suppose the next step is to get Frederick Winslow Taylor to stand beside the marriage bed with a stopwatch and a clipboard. “Three caresses would have been sufficient, ma’am.”
In The Glass Cage, I argue that we’ve embraced a wrong-headed and ultimately destructive approach to automating human activities, and in Apple’s let-the-software-do-the-talking feature we see a particularly disquieting manifestation of the reigning design ethic. Technical qualities are given precedence over human qualities, and human qualities come to be seen as dispensable.
When we allow ourselves to be guided by predictive algorithms, in acting, speaking, or thinking, we inevitably become more predictable ourselves, as Rochester Institute of Technology philosopher Evan Selinger pointed out in discussing the Apple system:
Predicting you is predicting a predictable you. Which is itself subtracting from your autonomy. And it’s encouraging you to be predictable, to be a facsimile of yourself. So it’s a prediction and a nudge at the same moment.
It’s a slippery slope, and it becomes more slippery with each nudge. Predicted responses begin to replace responses, simply because it’s a little more efficient to simulate a response —a thought, a sentence, a gesture — than to undertake the small amount of work necessary to have a response. And then that small amount of work begins to seem like a lot of work — like correcting your own typos rather than allowing the spellchecker to do it. And then, as original responses become rarer, the predictions become predictions based on earlier predictions. Where does the algorithm end and the self begin?
And if we assume that the people we’re exchanging messages with are also using the predictive-text program to formulate their responses . . . well, then things get really strange. Everything becomes a parlor trick.
Image: Thomas Edison’s talking doll.