Despite the explosion of technology, writing is still a remarkably old-fashioned process. Whether you’re using a pen and paper or a computer, your brain is on its own in transforming your thoughts into a coherent piece of prose.
But an Israeli company called AI21 Labs is hoping to change that with the launch of a new smart writing tool that can take your first attempt at communicating an idea and give you a bunch of alternatives. The tool, which comes in the form of a Chrome extension called Wordtune, can make suggestions on how to tweak your sentence while keeping its meaning the same, how to condense a sentence down to its most essential parts, and even how to change the tone from casual to formal.
“Words are crude and you don’t always find the exact words, though they exist,” says AI21 cofounder and co-CEO Yoav Shoham, who was a computer science professor at Stanford for nearly 30 years. “That’s true for all of us, even good writers. Our goal is to lessen the gap.”
The extension pops up a small floating toolbar on websites such as Google Docs, Gmail, Twitter, and Facebook. If you highlight a phrase or a sentence, the functions that Wordtune can help with—like rewrite, shorten, or formal tone—show up as small buttons next to your cursor. The extension will subtly underline words you may want to replace using its thesaurus-like feature, which was designed to only suggest synonyms that fit within the sentence’s context.
There are a host of writing tools that act like copy editors and double-check your spelling and grammar, but AI21Labs is aiming to build a true writing companion that is focused on helping you find the words that express an idea most accurately. In doing so, it’s going up against Grammarly, which is primarily a smart copy editor but also can assess the tone of a piece of writing and suggest edits to phrases to alter tone. Wordtune takes this a step further by making full sentence recommendations for how you can change your tone.
Ori Goshen, AI21 Labs co-CEO
We’re here to suggest fluent sentences which are closely related to the original meaning.”
Wordtune tries to strike a balance between proactively helping you and staying out of the way. Unlike Gmail’s Smart Compose feature, which predicts what you’re going to type next (and which quickly got so annoying that I turned it off), Wordtune keeps you in the driver’s seat by offering suggestions when and if you want them.
“Because of the approach, we don’t presume to say, ‘This is right or wrong,'” says Ori Goshen, AI21 Labs’ other cofounder and co-CEO. “We’re here to suggest fluent sentences which are closely related to the original meaning.”
Building on big, brawny AI
AI21’s suggestions are powered by a set of machine learning models that build on the big breakthroughs in natural language processing of the last few years—including Google’s BERT model and OpenAI’s GPT-3. According to Shoham, these advances were enabled by giving language AIs more data to learn from and throwing more computing power at them. “What you get is amazing pattern detection, which enables a lot of really good stuff,” he says. “Our hypothesis was and still is that that’s necessary but not sufficient, especially when you come to working with language as opposed to, say, images. In language, everything is complicated.”
To create Wordtune, which is the company’s first commercial product, AI21 took the ideas behind these powerful language models and built on top of them. The labs’ team built complimentary algorithms that can take what a big, brawny model’s suggests—some of which may be excellent, and others terrible—and sift through them in an attempt to fine-tune the output. “We have to put a layer of intelligence. That’s the difference between a demo that’s cool and a product that really works,” says Shoham, in a slight jab at the natural language model GPT-3, which spawned a huge number of flashy demos when it was released earlier this year.
In several days of trying out Wordtune, I can confirm that most of the sentences that it suggested to me were grammatically correct and the features actually did help me shorten and streamline as I was writing. Still, after scrolling through many of the tool’s rewrite options, I did start to encounter some typos and grammar issues, a sign of the still-nascent technology. Only once did I get a truly strange result—while drafting a recent story I wrote, Wordtune made some odd suggestions that had nothing to do with the sentence I was trying to edit.
I primarily used Wordtune while writing stories, but it has a host of applications. The feature that tweaks a sentence’s tone could make it much easier to compose sensitive emails, while the shortening feature would be ideal for writing tweets. The company reports it has already seen interest from academics and businesses, though for now Wordtune will be offered directly to consumers.
Wordtune is available for download in the Chrome store for free, though some of its more interesting features—like tone suggestions—require an upgrade for $10 per month.