Microsoft (MS) has launched a research project to create a new next generation of tools designed to, “help writers by showing them some of the alternative ways by which they can express their ideas.”

As the official project overview explains…

For all the huge leaps in progress in computing technology over the last half century, computers continue to be used extensively for one very old-fashioned purpose: creating text. Yet the range of tools aimed at helping writers with the authoring process has remained fairly static, with spelling and grammar checkers aimed at helping users avoid small or potentially embarrassing errors. Much less effort has been devoted to building tools or applications that assist writers in constructing better prose or finding alternative ways of expressing what they wish to communicate

Among the objectives of the project are the creation of software-based systems including:

  • An ‘enormous’ thesaurus containing more than 1 million keywords and key phrases,
  • An index of English synonyms and phrasal paraphrases,
  • A ‘very large language model’ designed to recognise contextual errors in language usage in the same way that WS Office currently attempts to recognise errors in word usage (i.e.- ‘your’ vs ‘you’re’ or ‘their’ vs ‘there’ or ‘they’re’).

The result of all that should be…

…a new kind of thesaurus; one that does not simply point the user to a list of synonyms for a word in their document – most of them not quite right for one reason or another – but that instead suggests a smaller set of synonyms that are most likely to make sense in that particular context.

The writing assistance tool project’s long-term vision is nothing less than a fully-automated paraphrasing system which not only suggests alternative words and phrases, but also suggests alternative sentence structures and other shades of expression.

However… We work-a-day journalists wonder if all this technology will actually turn out to be a constructive substitute for the traditional methods of learning how to express one’s self: lots and lots of reading and writing. Critics point out that simply handing emerging writers more-sophisticated word and structure options won’t actually teach them anything and will, in fact, contribute to the further decline of the English language.

We’ll be watching the evolution of ‘writing assistance’ systems with special interest…

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