Robot handwriting

When humans write by hand, our margins are — you guessed it — irregular. On the left-hand side of a paragraph, we try to keep a nice straight margin, beginning each line in the same location. But we usually can’t keep it very precise. We drift inwards, producing a left margin that slowly slopes towards the center of the page. Here’s an example of a human-written letter Maillift composed to send to customers:

See how the left-hand side drifts inwards? The lines beginning “choose”, “color” and “logo” all move to the right.

But the activity on the right-hand margin is even weirder.

Curliss and Jurek have noticed that their human handwriters often produce a “rounded” right margin: It bulges outwards and then tucks back inwards. In the example above, “showcase” sticks out further than the line above, “option”. But then the lines begin rounding inwards, with “size” and “own” moving further and further into the center of the page.

Why would humans do this? Probably because we aren’t terribly good at judging how many words fit on each line. If we accidentally overpack a line — trying to cram too many words into it — we immediately overcompensate by becoming too cautious, and putting too few words on the next couple of lines. You can see that dynamic at work in the example above. The composer wrote a nicely-kerned first line, but in the next line crammed in too many words, such that “showcase” comes uncomfortably close to the edge of the page. So he or she pulled back sharply, and the next three lines shrink in length.

A robot, in contrast, knows precisely how much space each word takes up, and doesn’t make these mistakes. You won’t see that rounded margin on the right.

Until, of course, robots are programmed to mimic that, too.

From a fascinating Clive Thompson post on the recent adoption of robots to generate hand-written letters to try to improve response rates on marketing offers. As Thompson notes, it's actually the exception, not the rule, to receive hand-written communications nowadays. A hand-written note actually may be the clearest sign that a letter is just marketing collateral.

I don't have kids; do they even teach handwriting in school anymore?