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Faithful text prediction

These systems were trained to suggest the least informative text.

A friend recently emailed me about how God had used a hard time in his life for good. When I responded with “I’m glad you are –” Gmail suggested “– doing well.” I paused, wondering if that phrase sounds lazy and superficial. If it hadn’t popped up, I might have written something like “I’m glad you’re seeing God’s work.” When computers and phones predict our words and even phrases, how are these suggestions shaping what we write?

I recruited many writers to study the effect of word predictions like those you see on your smartphone. We found that these predictions make writing more terse and perhaps less detailed. As the technology improves and apps like Gmail now suggest longer phrases, the predictive nudge may grow stronger. As a Christian technologist who uses artificial intelligence to build and research these tools, how should I shape this technology?

In Creation, God spoke. That word made things. Made in God’s image, we also speak, though as imitating echoes of God’s speech. And obeying his command to “be fruitful and multiply,” we make things and work out the latent potential that God has put in the world. And God put us in community, so communication is essential to our life and calling.

Lazy responses?

screenshot of a text conversation
Text prediction can cause some unfortunate mistakes (sorry, Dad!)

God put potential for communication in our fingers as well as our mouths; pens, typewriters and now touchscreen keyboards unfold that creative potential. Technologists were able to develop useful features like autocorrect and word-gesture keyboards because they understood the good limitations of our physical bodies and creatively matched them with the constraints of touchscreen technology. To that extent, they align with the creational call to work out the potential of written words.

In the Fall, sin invaded our communication and relationships. We no longer speak or listen rightly. We replace authentic kindness and empathy with vacuous signaling (“That’s great!”, “I hope you had a great weekend”) that can now be automated. Our communication became lazy and self-centered.

It is easy for technology to inadvertently support this self-centered laziness. When participants in my studies accept lots of suggested words, or people tap and send the complete responses that Gmail suggests, some see a successful technology; I’m skeptical. Technically, these systems were trained to suggest the least informative text. They were evaluated by whether the writer accepted the suggestion, not whether the result was helpful to the reader. So do these technologies help us serve our readers – or ourselves?

better understanding

Jesus, the Word of God, came to us in mercy amidst our selfish and sinful words to speak a better word of new life. He gives us hope for a new creation where our words, work and relationships all bring flourishing, as God intended them.

In hope for the new creation, we ought to develop technology to draw out the potential of our thoughts and deepen our communications with other human beings. Perhaps our communication technology could help us think more about others, imagining how they will react and nudging us to help them understand us better. Productivity is easy to measure (time, errors, quality), but I wonder how we might measure how much a tool contributes to flourishing relationships: does it help people mutually understand each other, communicate true things to each other, and inspire and encourage each other?

One of my projects involves giving writers tools to rearrange their phrases and ideas to be clearer to readers. Currently such edits are toilsome; I hope that by designing technology suited to the good limitations of our minds and bodies, I can help writers express the potential of their thinking more fully.

Another project tries to help writers empathize with readers by predicting what sort of questions readers might ask. Since sin has made it harder for us to think of others, I’m hoping that this tool will help us communicate in ways that can better show love to neighbours.

Even mundane word processing technology nudges the world in some direction. I hope my work can, in some small way, encourage words that bring “life” and “knowledge” (Prov. 15:4, 7 ESV) in anticipation of the good words that will exemplify our communication in the new creation.

  • Ken is assistant professor of computer science at Calvin University and recently completed a PhD in AI related to text prediction.

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