How AI Can Turn Language into Code

A little help from the machines

Key Takeaways

  • A new system called Codex helps programmers by translating written language into code. 
  • There are a growing number of tools to help people build programs without coding skills. 
  • One developer recommends Blockly, a drag-and-drop language created by Google, for newbies.
Two people working together at a computer.

Luis Alvarez / Getty Images

Computer programming is getting some help from artificial intelligence. 

OpenAI has released a new version of Codex, an artificial intelligence (AI) system that translates written language into code. Codex won’t quite allow you to program without any experience, but there are a growing number of ways that people can do just that. 

"Many products allow users to add images, create layouts for websites and mobile applications, and define data to pull from without ever writing code," Fahim ul Haq, the CEO of Educative, an education platform for software developers, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

Speak to Program

Codex is based on GPT-3, a natural language model created by OpenAI. The programmers trained Codex on billions of lines of code and written text to allow it to translate plain English into code.

"GPT-3 is a system that you talk to, and it talks back to you, so the only impact it has is in your mind," said Greg Brockman, chief technology officer of OpenAI, during a recent demonstration

"With Codex, you talk to it [and] it generates code, which means it can actually act in the computer world on your behalf. And I think that that’s a really powerful thing—that you actually have a system that can carry out commands on your behalf."

Despite the hype, Codex won’t let amateurs start spouting programs, ul Haq said. It takes technical know-how just to get Codex running and a bit more to get a result. 

"Codex doesn’t replace the developer’s key problem-solving skillset—understanding an issue and architecting a solution as a series of programmed steps," he added.

"Moreover, Codex isn’t a standalone application. It plugs into programs developers use called IDEs (examples include Visual Studio and Notepad++) through an API interface. A user would still have to set up their development environment, understand the API, and connect their IDE to Codex just to set it up."

But Codex is an impressive tool for developers, ul Haq said. 

"Because the AI was trained on public code, it has the ability to suggest different code based on what a developer is already typing, an autocomplete feature just like you have for text messages on your cell phone," he added. "It’s possible, therefore, to cycle through a handful of options to find the exact code you need in the line."

No Special Skills Required

There are many options for non-technical users who want to program. 

Someone creating code using a laptop and a desktop computer.

Chalirmpoj Pimpisarn / EyeEm / Getty Images

Web developer Patrick Sinclair recommends Blockly, a drag and drop language created by Google. It lets you drag and drop blocks of commands that snap to each other like puzzle pieces and create a working program. The program you built using the interlocking blocks can then be translated to equivalent code in the programming language of your choice.

"I think Blockly is perfect to start your programming journey because when it comes to coding, the best thing you can do is have strong concepts, not master a programming language," Sinclair told Lifewire in an email interview. "Blockly helps you do just that by teaching you how the flow of a program works and what basic concepts are used."

There are also non-technical programming tools like Thunkable and Bubble that allow users to create programs through a graphical interface. And, of course, you can build websites without code using tools like 

More than 1.5 billion users have a free coding tool but might not know about it, Google developer expert Chanel Greco told Lifewire in an email interview. "As soon as you have a Google account, you have access to the Script Editor where you can write Google Apps Script to create things like macros in Google Sheets," she said. 

To build a personal mobile application, Andromo is a great no-code platform for iOS and Android, ul Haq said. "You could create an app for your own family, or even publish to the store, sell, and monetize with ads," he added.

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