Screenshot of an example of Gmail's Smart Compose feture

AI, Gmail’s Smart Compose, and the end of writers?

The October 14, 2020 edition of the New Yorker has a thought provoking piece by John Seabrook called “The Next Word.”  Seabrook begins the article with Gmail’s Smart Compose feature, which suggests phrases while you are typing a sentence.  If you are a Gmail user, you may have noticed recommendations for completing a sentence you are typing.  Have you accepted a recommendation?  I’ve been surprised at the quality of some of the suggestions and use them occasionally.   So does Seabrook, as he explains in the excerpt below.

Finally, I crossed my Rubicon. The sentence itself was a pedestrian affair. Typing an e-mail to my son, I began “I am p—” and was about to write “pleased” when predictive text suggested “proud of you.” I am proud of you. Wow, I don’t say that enough. And clearly Smart Compose thinks that’s what most fathers in my state say to their sons in e-mails. I hit Tab. No biggie.

The article goes on to explore the artificial intelligence systems that are used to power Smart Compose and other tools such as medical translation and Grammarly, a grammar-checking and copy editing tool. Seabrook also works with OpenAI, a leading artificial intelligence company, to ingest an archive of New Yorker articles and generate text based on a prompt. The first prompt read:

Ernest Hemingway, who may well be the greatest living American novelist and short-story writer, rarely comes to New York. He spends most of his time on a farm, the Finca Vigia, nine miles outside Havana, with his wife, a domestic staff of nine, fifty-two cats, sixteen dogs, a couple of hundred pigeons, and three cows.

The AI system responded with the following generated text.

I walked up the path to the fence and saw a plump dog, that had been a common visitor to the Finca Vigia before the war, galloping up a path to the main building, with a tiny cow of the same name standing by her side. There was a puddle of red gravy in the front yard, and Hemingway sat down in a lawn chair.

He was wearing a tweed suit, over a shiny sweater, and his black hair was brushed back. He had a red beard and wore his waistcoat in an overcoat with the body of a ship, three broad belts of colorful chain-link, a pair of capacious rectangular eyeglasses, and a silk tie. “Gouging my eye,” he said, in Italian, saying that he had caused himself that terrible scar, “the surgeon said it wasn’t that bad.” When he was very young, he said, he started smoking but didn’t find it very pleasant. The cigarette burns in his hands and wrists were so bad that he had to have his face covered.

The output is both interesting and horrifying. It resembles much of the style of New Yorker writers but with obvious flaws.  Writing a complex article is a high bar, but these systems are already used to interpret datasets that humans don’t have time to do. Writing up the results from every local election or high school football game, for example.

There are potential ramifications for Swarthmore.  Will Smart Compose make its way into Google Docs and help complete sentences for a class research paper or essay?  If so, who is writing the paper?  Currently most professors at Swarthmore don’t use automated evaluation to review papers.  It’s hard to imagine ever depending solely on AI grading, but will essay grading tools ever get good enough to give student feedback on a rough draft or assist professors with grading?

As always, get in touch your Academic Technologist if you have any questions or want to discuss any ideas you have about this technology.