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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A new machine-learning-based writing companion called Wordtune aims to help users edit and improve written text as it's being composed.

Why it matters: Natural language processing is one of the most active areas in AI today. If tools like Wordtune work well, it would demonstrate AI is getting closer to really understanding what we're saying.

How it works: Wordtune, developed by Israel-based startup AI21 Labs, can be downloaded as an extension for the Chrome browser. Users can then use the tool to highlight text being composed on services like Gmail, Google Docs, Facebook and Twitter.

  • The free version of Wordtune will give you the option to "rewrite" the sentence, offering several different ways to say whatever you've tried to say.
  • A premium version that costs $9.99 a month adds other features. Those include options to help users make their sentences longer or shorter, or more formal or more casual, as well as a feature that suggests words — based off the context of the sentence — that might be on the tip of a user's tongue.
Wordtune tuning words. Credit: AI21 Labs

Context: Spellchecks and grammar checks have been around for decades, and Google's Smart Compose function suggests complete sentences in email.

  • Smart Compose, however, is primarily predictive — trying to fill in what you might write in order to save time — while Wordtune "is about understanding what you're trying to say and putting it into words, like an editor or a co-writer," says Yoav Shoham, co-founder and co-CEO of AI21 Labs.
  • That focus also sets it apart from similar products such as Grammarly, which also functions as a digital writing assistant but focuses more on correcting mistakes than trying to suggest just the right words. (Grammarly does also offer additional AI-powered feedback such as suggestions for choosing stronger words and improving sentence structure, a spokesperson notes.)

Yes, but: AI startups often make big promises that don't always pan out. It'll be up to users to decide if Wordtune pulls off the intangible, know-it-when-you-see-it quality of improved writing.

  • And if Wordtune does succeed, it's easy to see it being used for less benign purposes, such as punching up misinformation or helping plagiarists wipe off the traces of the source documents they pull from.

The big picture: 2020 has already seen leaps forward in natural language processing — most notably Open AI's GPT-3 model, which can generate paragraphs of text with a brief user prompt by tapping a deep neural network trained on half a trillion words.

The bottom line: We don't all have the benefit of a professional editor, so it's easy to see a good use case for Wordtune — though if it's too good, I may be out of a job.

Update: This story has been updated to include comment from Grammarly.

Go deeper

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
Nov 14, 2020 - Technology

AI talent appears open to working on defense — with caveats

An aerial view of the Pentagon. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images

A new survey offers some evidence that most artificial intelligence experts are positive or neutral when it comes to working with the Pentagon on AI-enabled projects.

Why it matters: Employee concerns have led some tech companies to pull back from working on defense-related projects in the past, but for many in the AI world, the chance to work on intellectually challenging projects — and the Pentagon's not insignificant budget — seems too good to pass up.

Updated 2 hours ago - Health

California surpasses 50,000 COVID-19 deaths

A man prepares a funeral arrangement in in Los Angeles, California, Feb. 12. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

California's death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 50,000 on Wednesday, per Johns Hopkins data.

The big picture: It's the first state to record more than 50,000 deaths from the coronavirus.

4 hours ago - Technology

Facebook bans Myanmar military

A protester holds a placard with a three-finger salute in front of a military tank parked aside the street in front of the Central Bank building during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo by Aung Kyaw Htet/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Facebook said on Wednesday it would ban the rest of the Myanmar military from its platform.

The big picture: It comes some three weeks after the military overthrew the civilian government in a coup and detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi, causing massive protests to erupt throughout the country. Military leaders have been using internet blackouts to try to maintain power in light of the coup.