We’ve all been there: Five seconds after sending out a super-important email, our inner Pulitzer Prize winner makes a belated appearance and admonishes us for our poor choice of words, lengthy sentences and awkward goodbyes, leaving us wishing that we could do it all over again.

These moments of utter horror can now be a thing of the past, thanks to a new Chrome extension that harnesses the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to help us present the very best version of ourselves in writing.

Wordtune is the work of Israeli startup AI21 Labs. ISRAEL21c hesitantly sat down with AI21 Labs cofounder Prof. Yoav Shoham (remotely, of course) to hear how artificial intelligence is going to put us writers and copy editors out of a job.

Spoiler alert: it won’t, at least not for now.

“Our mission is how to rethink how we read and write,” explains Shoham. “We think that there’s an opportunity to make it an AI-first experience and make the computer not just your copy editor that fixes your mistake, but really a co-writer.”

Shoham knows what he’s talking about. A Stanford University professor emeritus, he’s been dealing with artificial intelligence since the Eighties. He initiated the AI Index project that tracks the activity and progress of AI, and sold two startups to Google.

Together with cofounder Ori Goshen and chairman Amnon Shashua (the professor who cofounded Mobileye and OrCam), Shoham is leading AI21 Labs, which just completed a $25 million Sound A funding round.

“Back in the 1980s there was a similar hoopla about AI, but it was different,” he says. “There wasn’t as much data as there is today and there wasn’t the computer power there is today.”

The missing component

“Today AI is incredibly good at identifying patterns,” Shoham adds. “Incredibly good at finding deep patterns underlying language in insanely large corpuses.”

And this is exactly what AI21 Labs is leveraging with Wordtune.

“We want to embrace deep learning and add to it the missing component of semantic knowledge,” Shoham notes.

The Wordtune extension in practice. Photo: screenshot

Wordtune employs 40-odd employees in its Tel Aviv offices, around two-thirds of them alumni of the prestigious military intelligence Unit 8200 (including co-founder Goshen), and about a quarter of them boasting PhDs.

“We didn’t just want to do a research lab,” Shoham explains. “We also wanted to focus on products and services that would bring commercial value from the beginning.”

Shoham compares Wordtune to a good editor that not only replaces the odd word or two or fixes grammatical mistakes, but understands the gist of what you’re trying to say and makes it so much better.

“It captures your intention,” he notes. “What you really wanted to say.”

This, he notes, is unlike other existing applications that focus on grammar or spelling.

“For example, you can select a whole sentence and it will offer you ways to rephrase the sentence,” he says.

Tip of the tongue

“Another feature is ‘tip of the tongue.’ You’re writing and you’re thinking, ‘What am I looking to say here?’ You say a sentence and you have many [possible] completions; some guesses may be right. It’s collaborative, you can give it hints.”

A feature called “smart paste” allows you to copy text from somewhere else and match its style to your document. “It will fuse it, not the existing text, to make it fluent not only grammatically but also semantically.”

At this point yours truly had to ask whether she still has a future. Because if a smart tool can make the information you’re copying off Wikipedia look like your own, then she’s in trouble.

“Enjoy it while you have it,” Shoham jokes. “Not really. We really believe that it’s an assistant. It doesn’t replace the writer. The idea is yours.”

Haim and Haimke

AI21 Labs also released two demos called Haim (a language model that can fill in text between a human-written beginning and a human-written end) and Haimke (a bullets-to-paragraph generator).

Haimke turns the bullet points in bold into paragraphs. Photo: screenshot

“Haim and Haimke are not a product; they’re a technology demo, a way of flexing our muscles,” Shoham explains. “It’s actually a lot of fun.”

Having lived and worked in the Bay Area for many years, Shoham finds the local Israeli ecosystem “amazing, both the academic, semi-academic and startup activity,” he says.

“There’s sort of an attitude of can-do and there’s nothing that’s impossible,” he adds. “There’s no goal that’s too ambitious, so it’s actually quite inspiring.”

As for future plans, Shoham will only say this: “We are very innovative on science and tech and we’re very ambitious on product and so we’re going to continue, I hope, to innovate on both.”