When Are Large Language Models Useful?

A colorful illustration of a two robots sitting at a desk with with empty paper and books infront of them. One is holding a pencil. Generated with stable diffusion. Prompt: A drawing of a cute robot, color, writing with a pen, sitting at a desk

Large language models (LLMs) like ChatGPT, Bing Chat, and Bard have gained tremendous popularity in recent months. It feels like a pivotal moment in the technology’s growth as it becomes increasingly integrated into people’s workflows. But despite the excitement, some people are already dismissing the technology after they asked it questions and received nonsensical responses. I think they are mistaken. LLMs are incredibly valuable tools, if you know when to use them.

I gave an example in my last post of a good application for LLMs: editing prose. But what specifically makes this problem ideal for solving with a model? Succinctly, it is a problem where solving it is hard, but verifying the solution is easy. I will go into more detail in the rest of this post.

What Are They Good For?

In math, there are a types of problems where finding a solution is difficult or impossible, but confirming a solution is easy. A common strategy to solve these problems is to guess the solution’s form and then verify it, such as for an integral where the solution can be checked by taking its derivative.

Large language models are particularly useful for exactly these types of tasks: where generating a solution is hard, but verifying it is easy. Editing a paragraph is a prime example of this kind of task since writing multiple versions is time-consuming, whereas verifying the quality of a single paragraph can be done quickly.

Another good use case is writing code, especially if you have tests in place to verify the code’s correctness.

What Are They Bad For?

LLMs are bad for problems where verification is hard compared to the generation of an answer.

Some people are using LLMs as a replacement for search engines. This is a perfect example of a bad use of the technology because verifying the accuracy of the information provided by the model takes time and effort. In fact, it often involves additional searches to confirm the validity of the answer, which defeats the purpose of using an LLM in the first place.