Why the National Spelling Bee is more vital than ever in the age of AI


The 96th Scripps National Spelling Bee, commencing Tuesday, stands as a testament to discipline and focus in a world where these qualities seem to be dwindling.

“Why invest in spelling bees when we have spell check?” is a question I often encounter as a professional spelling bee tutor. It’s a valid query, especially from those who haven’t witnessed the competition firsthand. In today’s digital age, where cell phones and computers boast the entire English dictionary at our fingertips, spelling bees may seem unnecessary. Yet, questioning their utility overlooks what makes them cherished events. The cancellation of the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2020 due to the pandemic broke the hearts of spellers and language enthusiasts. Its swift revival in 2021 and 2022, albeit with modified rules and a partially virtual format, underscores its enduring appeal. The Bee continues to captivate audiences globally, prompting countries like Jamaica, China, and Ghana to send teams to Washington DC to compete.

With the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), concerns about human distinctiveness and the domains best suited for automation have become paramount. While AI advancements have surpassed human capabilities in many areas, they haven’t rendered intellectual competitions obsolete. Despite computers like Deep Blue and Watson outperforming humans in chess and trivia, respectively, competitions like spelling bees endure. These events celebrate human skill, training, and composure under pressure—qualities machines cannot replicate.

Watching young spellers, typically aged nine to 14, decipher words onstage under immense pressure is thrilling. With just 75 seconds for questions and 90 seconds total to spell, they navigate a mentally taxing tightrope. The atmosphere in the spelling bee ballroom is palpably tense, even through a screen. One wrong letter could undo years of preparation, making each moment absolute, intense, and exhilarating.

Competitive spellers are akin to word detectives, armed with linguistic knowledge and phonetic expertise. They analyze words using Latin and Greek stems, discerning patterns and exceptions to spelling rules. Spellers develop and refine hypotheses about word spellings in real time, leveraging Bayesian inference and linguistic cues. Spelling demands meticulous attention to etymology, grammar, and pronunciation, making it more than just crossing T’s and dotting I’s—it’s an art requiring unwavering focus.

In essence, spelling bees are a celebration of human intellect, dedication, and linguistic prowess. In a world increasingly reliant on technology, they remind us of the unparalleled power of the human mind.

Source: theguardian.com