• Sun. Sep 24th, 2023

How a four-letter word signals the rising power of computer science

How a four-letter word signals the rising power of computer science

Sometimes, you just want to say: Duck it.

The f— you do.

I’ve never heard anyone actually hurl a D-bomb for an F-bomb. That prim substitution for a common expletive exists only in print, particularly “family” newspapers.

And, heretofore, on your Apple phone. Because the device wouldn’t permit use of the real F-word in texts, autocorrecting the obscenity into oblivion. Duck … ducked … ducking. Unless you turn off the autocorrect function. Or — most people unaware of this workaround — create a shortcut in your phone settings so that it recognizes that word as an actual word and doesn’t interfere with your impulsive meltdown screeds.

But soon, within a few months, Apple will let you F-blitz to your heart’s content, in all the no-no word’s inflected forms.

Earlier this week, Apple’s software chief announced the technology company is bringing the profanity in out of the cold. “In those moments where you just want to type a ducking word, well, the keyboard will learn it, too,” Craig Federighi told the company’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference at its headquarters in Cupertino, Calif.

So no more wrestling with your obstinately censorious phone when you feel the need to absolutely tell somebody to eff off. Because to this point, 16 years since the iPhone launched, that carping little bugger in your palm would fight you to the euphemistic death. Unless you brought it to de-autocorrect heel. Effing frustrating for a lot of Apple clients, apparently, who’ve complained about it ad nauseam.

Such a great deal of fuss about a little four-letter-word that, according to a 1999 book, “The F-word,” is considered to be one of the most spoken but least written words in the English language. It’s made only one rare appearance in the Star, far as I can remember, in a movie review, and the editor caught ducking hell for it. The policy for swear words at this paper is they should be used only in direct quotations and, even then, just the first letter followed by dashes. A dictum which I’ve clearly violated, if this column ever sees the light of print.

Hey, we’re not F-spewing “Succession,” right? Cable and streaming shows are rife with cuss words and they go into people’s homes, too. But ostensibly for newspapers — and mainstream TV — the F-execration is a vulgarity too far. Papers turned themselves inside-out way back in 1971 trying to report on Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau allegedly uttering the F-word in the House of Commons. Trudeau always insisted, wryly, that he’d said “fuddle-duddle.” Which brought that neologism into the lexicon.

I could make a cogent argument for taking f— and other widespread bitty bad words off the verboten list. But I’d be p–ing in the wind, ’round these parts. To my knowledge, only The Guardian in the UK allows freewheeling f—s from columnists.

Anyway, that’s not the point of this column. And I do have one.

The Apple update is slated for later this year, when the new iOS 17 makes its debut, with an AI-powered autocorrect function. AI needs to learn, see; it knows only what’s fed into its maw. Somewhere out there in Apple-land, there are presumably real humans fattening its algorithm brain with a torrent of dirty talk. Actually, if I understand correctly — and I’m a tech dumdum — the AI software will learn to predict what the user regularly types out, your habits, and cease annoyingly altering your texts. Using a so-called transformer language model, similar to the technology that powers ChatGPT, Federighi said the upcoming iOS will be able to fix entire sentences based on context — for example changing “your” to you’re” as necessary, which most people on Twitter still haven’t figured out. And preserve your coprolalia.

Newspapers increasingly rely on algorithms, including autocorrect, to cheaply perform the job once done by copy editors — those sticklers of spelling, grammar, usage and fact-checking. In some newsrooms, the copy editor has disappeared completely. In most others, the Star included, there’s only a handful dealing with large volumes of copy every night, much of it landing on deadline. However, AI doesn’t scope out garble — the unintended kind — and autocorrect often inserts spelling mistakes.

The upshot is typo-riddled unintelligible copy, which — to judge by the emails I get, all journalists get – drives readers bats–t crazy. The Toronto Sun must have The Dollar Store version of word processing software because the tabloid has become unreadable. I feel sorry for their reporters — down to four general assignment stiffs, I’m told — made to look stupid. Newsrooms have always had journalists who can’t spell for licorice curls but copy editors were our safety net. I am beholden.

Journalism has become more highly dependent on technology than ever, even as economic convulsions in our industry — and the looting of stories by Google, etc. — have slashed budgets to the bone. Hence the shuttering of foreign bureaus, the inability to flood big breaking news stories by actually jumping on a plane and going, in-person dispatches replaced by social media trolling for witnesses and quotes, and covering live sports off television. Meanwhile, we’ve seen the advent of “content generators,” “audience engagers,” data curators and a whole bunch of digital folks whose jobs I don’t comprehend. Not slagging them; just saying it’s all a mystery to reporter-me.

Already, in the news biz, AI is culling data from multiple sources and automatically converting the data into quasi-narrative news texts — articles — allegedly crucial for fast-breaking news developments that go online. I’ve always appreciated the get-it-first mentality, but how about getting it right, clean and legible?

The Washington Post introduced a robot reporting program called Heliograph that, in its first year, produced about 850 articles and earned the paper an award for “Excellence in Use of Bots.” If the Star won a Bots award (and maybe it has, dunno for sure), I’d want to jump off a bridge.

Such software is increasingly deployed for news briefs and sports digests — the latter, I suppose, not much different from box scores that papers used to publish when we had miles of space. Since, as some stridently claim, readers and viewers just want the facts ma’am, with no context or alleged ideological spin — FAKE NEWS! as per you-know-who — the day is coming when that’s all you’ll get. Making journalists redundant.

How do you know this column wasn’t written by a robot, hmm?

I’m not an AI scaredy-cat, though there’s legitimate reason for concern that uncritical thinking and advanced computer science will (has already) spread misinformation, cause data breaches in institutions such as hospitals, commandeer cybersecurity and, you know, generally destroy humanity itself. Unintended consequences. Remember what J. Robert Oppenheimer, theoretical physicist and “father of the atomic bomb” said, upon witnessing the first successful nuclear test in the New Mexico desert, quoting from Hindu sacred text: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

But hey, at least you can now swear like a sailor in your phone texts.

Duck that.

Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist covering sports and current affairs for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno

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