The humble keyboard hasn’t changed much since it was first invented. Even the jump from physical keyboards to the digital ones you use on your smartphone still look virtually identical – save for the new emoji keys we’ve grown accustomed to punching into a text message or tweet.
But for years now, scientists have been trying to crack the code behind natural language, a surprisingly difficult “technology” that, if only we could teach computers to use it, would transform how we interact with our devices. And now Microsoft appears to be investing heavily in that future, as well.
The software company is buying the British startup Swiftkey for $250 million. If you’re unfamiliar, Swiftkey is the maker of an intensely popular keyboard app that offers up the next word it thinks you’ll want to type in a sentence.
The app quickly became a best-seller shortly after it launched in 2008. What sets it apart from other keyboard programs is the way it attempts to function like the human brain does, recognizing patterns, evaluating meaning, making use of history to predict the future. Instead of drawing its predictions from a set database of existing words, Swiftkey analyzes your particular writing style in an effort to help the future you.
Scientists call this machine learning, and under Microsoft, Swiftkey’s technology stands to spread into practically every product the Redmond, Wash., company owns. Imagine if Microsoft Word or Outlook anticipated what you wanted to say in a document or email. It could be integrated into a host of other apps Microsoft has acquired, such as Wunderlist, its to-do list app, or Sunrise, its calendar app.
“SwiftKey’s predictive technology aligns with Microsoft’s investments and ambition to develop intelligent systems that can work more on the user’s behalf and under their control,” Microsoft said in a release.
Analyzing millions of user keystrokes won’t just help Microsoft supply your next turn of phrase; it’ll also give the company access to troves of valuable behavioral data that is now treated like currency among tech companies large and small. Chances are this tradeoff will be worth it for many consumers, just as many of us have willingly let Google mine our search history and Facebook see who we communicate with. But it does potentially give Microsoft another leg up in the increasingly competitive tech industry.
This is all taking place against the backdrop of a wider race to design the world’s best artificial intelligence. One of Google’s longtime goals has been to design a service that can anticipate your informational needs before you even realize it – covering weather updates to traffic data to upcoming appointments. The auto industry is throwing gobs of cash at robotics, too, in preparation for a world of driverless vehicles you can summon on-demand. Even Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is spending the year trying to design his own, personal AI as a side project. If he succeeds, you can be sure the product will be integrated into the social network’s own technology.
The AI wars have begun – and no, they don’t always involve gun-toting Terminators.
Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecommunications and the Internet.