Words are amazing. A phrase of unusual integrity or cacophony can launch our imagination, fill our senses, and send us tumbling through unexpected patterns of interpretation. Last night, I heard five wonderful words which arose from the collective creation of millions of people, a legendary computer, the content of the Internet, and years of effort by some of my greatest colleagues.
When Joe Braidwood said “You are all beautiful people” on stage last night, his five-word Webby speech directly thanked the millions of people who have used the SwiftKey keyboard software in the last two years. It was also a brilliant pun. SwiftKey revolutionises typing by giving users text predictions based on their personal typing style. In its first 20 months, it saved people 50 billion keystrokes–more than 643 years of typing. When a new user first types with SwiftKey, the default predictions read “I am a beautiful person.” So when our users heard Joe’s speech, it would have reminded them of their first moment using SwiftKey.
I was a software engineer working on SwiftKey when the phrase “I am a beautiful person” first emerged from the system in the summer of 2010. At the time, we were a scrappy startup with a few employees wedged into the corner of a converted church building in London. Our idea was to offer high quality predictions based on language collected from the Internet, conversational text, and users’ personal writing style. Under the hood. SwiftKey looks at what you have already typed and assigns probabilities to what you’re likely to say next. If you start out with the word “ice,” SwiftKey uses its knowledge of the English language to suggest that “cream” is the most probable next word.
Where did we get these probabilities? SwiftKey began as an experiment by co-founder Ben Medlock to use the Large Hadron Collider’s supercomputing grid during the days before the LHC was operational, to understand language on the Internet. He downloaded large parts of the Internet and set the grid to work on understanding probabilities for word usage. After that, we fine-tuned the system using collections of conversational text. Our calculations were unsupervised, so we had little idea what would emerge.
What did the collective human voice of English on the Internet most want to say? Watching “I am a beautiful person” emerge for the first time was a magical, almost spiritual moment for me. It expresses so many of the reasons we use language on the Internet: to share our feelings, to negotiate how others see us, and to explore our humanity. At SwiftKey, the phrase became a powerful reminder of the deeper value of typing, something which goes far beyond text on a screen. People type to build relationships, to joke, laugh, mourn, flirt, and include others into our lives. People don’t just use SwiftKey to get a job done; they invite us to join their journey to discover and live out who they are in the world– in all the complexity which being a person entails.
When Joe stood up at the Webbys and said, “you are all beautiful people,” that is what I heard: the voices of our amazing users who voted for the app, alongside the collective voice of the English language on the Internet. Mostly, it was a beautiful success for a team of people who make it their work to help people be themselves. Congratulations SwiftKey; you are a beautiful company.