Soon, Notion will be able to write your notes for you. The company today begins testing a new feature called Notion AI, which Notion CEO Ivan Zhao says could ultimately change the way people use the app — and get their jobs done. With Notion AI, all you have to do is tell the app what you want (a blog post, a recruiting email template, a list of great business books to read) , and the app actually creates the content right before your eyes.
According to Zhao, the first thing Notion AI is for is writing. A lot of work requires writing, a repetitive part (like creating new job descriptions) and a creative part (like writing blog posts or brainstorming new ideas). Zhao thinks Notion AI can help with both. “For many users in this space, this solves the cold start problem. And more so, it saves time. Notion AI won’t write you a publishable blog post, but it can help you skip the first crappy draft and jump right into improving and polishing.
Notion uses the same broad language models that companies like Google are starting to integrate into search results and that startups like Mem use to structure your personal information. There are plenty of AI-powered writing tools, of course, like Grammarly and Jasper and Google’s new Wordcraft, and all of them are improving rapidly with great language models. These patterns provide software with much more context so it can understand sentences and paragraphs rather than individual words, making it better at both understanding and writing text of all kinds.
It’s all very early, Notion’s technology and implementation, and Zhao reminds me of that many times. What’s launching today isn’t so much a new product as a private alpha of a new product: the company plans to roll it out slowly and carefully, but wants to start getting it into the hands of users now .
I was the first person outside of Notion to try Notion AI. Here’s how it works so far: When you create a new page, you get a bunch of new options. In addition to “Blank Page”, you get “Blog Post”, “Pros and Cons List”, “Plan”, “To Do List”, “Meeting Agenda”, “Sales Email ” and many others. Click on one and a prompt will open: “What should the blog post be about?” or “What do you want to make a pros and cons list of?” Type in your prompt, hit the blue “Generate” button, and Notion starts populating the page for you. If you like it, keep it. If not, try a new prompt or just hit “Retry” and watch it repopulate.
Here’s what Notion AI found automatically when I asked it to list the pros and cons of running a marathon:
- It’s a great way to exercise.
- It’s a great way to challenge yourself.
- It’s a great way to meet new people.
- It’s a great way to raise money for charity.
- It’s a great way to discover new places.
- It’s a lot of work.
- This takes lots of time.
- It can be very expensive.
- It can be dangerous.
- It can be difficult to find the time to practice.
Not really revolutionary, but not bad! Here are the first three paragraphs he spat out when I asked for a blog post on “the state of the smartwatch industry”:
The smartwatch industry is booming. With new products coming out all the time, it’s hard to keep up with the latest and greatest. In this blog post, we’ll take a look at the state of the smartwatch industry, including the latest products and trends.
One of the latest smartwatches to hit the market is the Apple Watch Series 4. This watch has a larger screen than previous models, and it also has new health features, such as the ability to take an EKG (ECG).
Another new product is the Samsung Galaxy Watch. This watch runs on the Tizen operating system and has many features, including the ability to track your fitness and sleep.
In this case, Notion AI gets the direction correct – it is indeed a blog post about the smartwatch industry – but it gets a lot of the facts wrong. This is where Zhao would remind me again that this is a private alpha with no set release date and that Notion is still learning as much as anyone. But clearly, the technology is far from over.
One more: I asked Notion AI to write a sales email explaining why everyone should read The edge. Here is what I have:
Subject: Why should you read The Verge
If you’re looking for a reliable source of tech news and information, look no further than The Verge. With a team of dedicated reporters, editors and photographers, The Verge provides in-depth coverage of the latest happenings in the tech world.
Whether you’re interested in the latest iPhone rumors or want to stay on top of the latest in AI and driverless cars, The Verge has you covered. So why not give us a try? You will not be disappointed.
The Verge Team
In addition to automatic early drafts, Zhao says Notion AI can be a useful ideation machine. You can start brainstorming and then tell Notion AI to keep writing and have it fill in more possibilities. Or you can invite him in with something like “the top three Formula 1 documentaries” and have him spit out a list you can work with. (In case you were wondering: Senna, Drive to surviveand 1. A pretty good list.)
Most of the data in Notion AI’s model comes from the wider internet. Zhao says the company partners with AI vendors but declines to say who. Ultimately, however, the company plans to customize the model for businesses, even individual pages, so the AI can write in a business’s voice and use its internal information. This raises serious privacy issues, which again explains why this is a private alpha.
Notion also imagines using AI for more than just writing. “It can help you answer questions,” he says. “A lot of Notion users are paying us because we’re a good knowledge base, and this is going to be a killer use case for knowledge bases.” You can just search for anything and Notion AI will paste the right information in place. Even beyond that, he says, “Connecting to your calendar, connecting to your task management — we can do crazy things with that.”
Zhao has often talked about modeling Notion after Douglas Engelbart, who for years worked on ways to use technology to augment human capabilities. “For us,” Zhao says, “it’s almost the purest version of that. The software is waking up a bit, to understand you better, to really augment you. It’s not just words on the page anymore, where you save to-do lists – it’s not text anymore, it’s meaning.
Zhao and his team are still researching what Notion AI can be useful for and how to help users understand how to use the new technology. (One of the challenges of generative AI is that an empty text box can be overwhelming, but so can a thousand hints and pop-ups.) They open the Notion AI waiting list today, with plans to open Notion AI to some of the product ambassadors first, then more users over time. Zhao says he tries hard not to be rushed. But he is convinced that now is when generative AI is moving from a nifty science project to a useful consumer tool. “I think it has a leverage effect on the Internet or on a web scale, which you can feel in your life.” It’s been tracking the space for years and the underlying technology is finally ready, he says. “And then wait until next year.”
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