Can this online tool correct autocorrect?

We’ve all seen or perhaps even been subjected to a hilarious autocorrect over the years, but what about when the technology is applied to the very basis of our identity: Our name.

In a paper entitled Autocorrecting for Whiteness, Rashmi Dyal-Chand, a professor at the Northeastern University School of Law—and whose name, not surprisingly, is underlined in red on our WordPress editor—wrote that the autocorrect function “presumes whiteness” by consistently flagging names that do not look white or Anglo, changing them either to Anglo approximations (Ayaan to Susan, for example) or replacements that aren’t even proper names (DaShawn to dash away).

And in a 2019 column written for the CBC, journalist and playwright Prajwala Dixit wrote about having her children’s play series The Tales of Dwipa auto-corrected to The Tales of Dwight, as well as having names like Hari corrected to Harold, and Prajwala to peanut. “I know non-white names may be a challenge for you to spell, but jeez, b’y, you gotta try!” she wrote.

The inherent bias featured in the algorithms of companies like Google, Microsoft and Apple is the basis of a new initiative led by One Twenty Three West founder, executive creative director Rob Sweetman and creative director Kate Roland called #AddMyName. The goal is to raise awareness of the issue, and possibly make the spell-checking capabilities and dictionaries of the tech giants more inclusive, said Sweetman.

“AI is so good at predictive stuff, like telling how you’re going to finish a sentence, but it continually [identifies] names incorrectly,” he said. “It feels like something that can be easily fixed. It just needs a bit of a programming tweak to recognize a broader range of backgrounds, names and cultures.”

#AddMyName consists of a microsite inviting people to type in their name, and inviting them to share the worst autocorrect they’ve been subjected to. It also generates shareable social posts bearing messages like “Yo spellcheck, keep your red squiggle to yourself. Sincerely (name here)” and “Hello I’m (name here). According to my parents I wasn’t a mistake. But, according to @apple, I am.”

Sweetman—who has had his own name autocorrected to “sweetmeats”—said that #AddMyName arose out a situation when autocorrect kept changing the name of a new hire at the agency named Alhyssa. He subsequently talked about the problem with the agency’s partner, creative director, design Mooren (Mo) Bofill, who told him that she started going by the name Mo in part because her phone kept autocorrecting her name to “Moron Boil.” (In an email confirming the story, Bofill wrote: “It was when BlackBerry first came out, and I would get tons of emails with “Hi Moron”).

While the platforms and devices we use every day tend to easily recognize typical Anglo names like Rob and Chris, they can also struggle with uncommon spellings. “We’re talking about diversity and inclusion,” said Sweetman. “There are so many names out there, that we thought it would be an interesting idea to give people a social tool to add their names and tag the digital giants, [asking them to] add more names to the dictionary so they’re not highlighted as errors.”

It’s not the first time that an agency has developed an online tool designed to challenge implicit biases. In 2019, BIMM created AutoCorrectHer, a Google Chrome extension that suggested changes to language used to describe women, such as “bossy” and “moody.”

Sweetman said they’re relying on PR to get the word out about #AddMyName, including potentially targeting mainstream journalists whose name might be susceptible to being autocorrected. The hope with #AddMyName is that one day every Taraje (suggested iPhone autocorrect: Tara Jesus), Daanesh (Data Eshpeter) and Hang-Fu (funny) can one day be treated like every Tom, Dick and Harry.

Chris Powell