Writing tool from AI21 Labs won't do all the hard work for you

Wordtune Spices is more like an AI-powered Grammarly

Language model startup AI21 Labs launched Wordtune Spices on Tuesday – a generative AI tool that aims to enhance human writing rather than replace it with machine-churned text.

Unlike ChatGPT and similar software, Spices is not an open-ended system that will produce long passages of text when instructed with a prompt. The ability to generate fairly lucid writing that is grammatically correct with perfect spelling automatically has prompted widespread concern that AI enables students and researchers to plagiarize and cheat.

Last week, New York City's education department blocked pupils from accessing ChatGPT using public school networks, and a top AI conference banned academics from using AI to write papers. Spices, however, cannot automatically answer essay questions or draft scientific manuscripts. Instead, it requires users to write their own sentences which can then be enhanced using different features of the software.

Rewrite, for example, will throw out a list of different suggestions for editing a specific sentence – rejigging its order or replacing words with synonyms. The tone can be changed to sound casual or formal. Sentences can be made shorter or longer. The more interesting generative abilities, however, are grouped under the Spices button.

Here, users can ask the system to generate text expanding on a specific topic, develop a counterargument, come up with an analogy, insert a statistical or historical fact, or add quotes.

It can even tell fairly lame jokes – like "What did the fish say when it swam into a wall? Dam!" Spices links to a web page to show the source of its information in some cases. The different features in Spices are supported by a mixture of different language models and more traditional handcrafted information retrieval algorithms. Spices is currently available to use for free in beta mode, but the company plans to roll out a paid premium service in the future. (Full disclosure: The Register used Spices to write this article, though it also went through a layer of human editing to polish rough edges.)

AI21's co-founder and co-CEO, Ori Goshen, believes AI can be a valuable tool, capable of helping people improve their writing if it fosters a closer collaboration between humans and machines.

"On one end of the spectrum, you have extremely local stuff like spelling and grammar correction. On the other end of the spectrum is long form generation, where you just prompt it with an instruction and then you get the whole essay or a whole blog post. But we're trying to strike the right balance here."

Spices can assist users in their writing, but it cannot do it for them. "The system may help you explore your thinking space. [The generative abilities are] designed for when people are stuck with an idea. They're writing something but they're not sure how to follow. The writer is in the driver's seat because they guide the system with the intention to make a joke here or [add a] statistical fact [there]. So the writer can adjust and control the narrative," he explained.

Technology will continue to alter the way humans write. Trying to ban students or researchers using AI is pointless, he believes. Institutions should, instead, adapt to these types of tools. They will eventually excel in producing particular types of writing that are more formulaic, and help people become more productive, he said.

"We think there's room for [AI-assisted writing] to be optimized for different professions – definitely where there's more structure. If you're a corporate lawyer or a real estate lawyer or a patent lawyer, there are certain patterns that you'd like the system to be aware of and consider when you prompt it with what you'd like to generate. Absolutely, we think there's room for specialization. For different professions, we will see this in accounting, for analysts, and healthcare, and so on."

Writing is a complex task that requires concentration and clear thinking. Teachers have warned that relying too heavily on AI could diminish people's ability to form their own thoughts. Machines should be used as a tool to enhance and support human creativity, not suppress it. Whilst Goshen agrees, he reckons these concerns are overblown.

"Language expresses almost everything about the world. I don't think that people would stop writing or not have the skills to. I think they will be empowered by systems to express themselves much better.

"Writing is thinking; it's an expression of our thoughts. I don't think we're going to stop writing or thinking anytime soon. I hope not," he concluded. ®

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