Prof turns to iOS autocomplete for aid on prank physics paper

A paper co-written by Apple's mobile software is accepted almost immediately by an international scientific conference. Break out your smartphones, would-be scientists.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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Leslie Katz
3 min read

iOS autocomplete might not be able to figure out when to use "pubic" vs. "public," but it can write a paper on atomic physics that gets accepted to a scientific conference.

That's what Professor Christoph Bartneck discovered when he submitted a paper co-written by the software to a conference on atomic and nuclear physics. He got an email letter of acceptance just three hours later.

The gag started when Bartneck, who teaches at the Human-Interface Technology Laboratory New Zealand at the University of Canterbury, got an invitation from the International Conference on Atomic and Nuclear Physics to submit a paper.

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Professor Christoph Bartneck

Duncan Shaw-Brown

"Since I have practically no knowledge of nuclear physics I resorted to the iOS auto-complete function to help me writing the paper," Bartneck wrote in a blog post titled iOS Just Got A Paper On Nuclear Physics Accepted At A Scientific Conference. "I started a sentence with 'atomic' or 'nuclear' and then randomly hit the auto-complete suggestions. The text really does not make any sense."

Reads one passage from the intellectual treatise, which appears in its one-page entirety at the bottom of this article:

"The atoms of a better universe will have the right for the same as you are the way we shall have to be a great place for a great time to enjoy the day you are a wonderful person to your great time to take the fun and take a great time and enjoy the great day you will be a wonderful time for your parents and kids."

Let me just note: Atoms of a Better Universe would make an excellent band name.

Bartneck lists the author of the paper as Iris Pear of Umbria Polytech University. Haven't heard of the school? It's located at 11 Infinite Loop in Cupertino, California. The author's biography includes a photo of Susan Bennett, the real voice of Siri, and reveals that Pear completed a Ph.D. at the esteemed IRS University of Technology.

Conference staff didn't immediately respond to an email request for comment. Calls to two phone numbers on the website for Conference Series, sponsor of the event, led to disconnected numbers.

However, a professor on the organizing committee for physics conferences in the series said he recently became suspicious of the atomic get-together when no one asked him to screen applications or help with the program.

"There are real scientists listed on the program, but it looks like this conference is organized by non-experts and they have no screening of contributed talks," Andrei Afanasev, a George Washington University physicist, said in an email. "It does not look good at all, so I will be withdrawing from this event."

Bartneck's research focuses on human-robot interaction and his past work has explored the influence of robotics on the development of language. He says he gets annoyed receiving daily invitations to conferences that have nothing to do with his research.

"I was doubtful whether any of these conferences have anything to do with science, and hence I started this small-scale empirical study, which tested the peer review process of this particular conference," Bartneck said in an email.

The acceptance letter asks Bartneck to confirm his slot for a presentation by registering for the conference. That will cost him more than $1,000.

Commenters to Bartneck's blog were also quick to question the legitimacy of the conference that solicited his work, and immediately accepted it.

"No serious conference organizer would send out emails to random people...and particularly not a month away from the conference itself," one wrote. "C'mon!"

The International Conference on Atomic and Nuclear Physics will take place from November 17-18 "at Atlanta, Georgia, USA," according to its website, which does not specify where in the city the event will occur.