Stack Overflow uses AI to give programmers new access to community knowledge

Stack Overflow, the developers' resource for programming questions, is adding AI to its community answer database.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor
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For years, if you had questions about C pointers, JavaScript operators, or how inheritance works in Python, your first destination was Stack Overflow

So, how important has Stack Overflow been? As the joke goes: "What do you call a programmer who claims they don't use Stack Overflow? A liar."

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However, things have changed. Some observers claim Stack Overflow has lost about 35% of its traffic during the past year and a half. Stack Overflow CEO Prashanth Chandrasekar told me, "This year, overall, we're seeing an average of ~5% less traffic compared to '22."

In an attempt to turn things around, Stack Overflow is adding artificial intelligence (AI) to its offerings: OverflowAI.

The company's ambitious roadmap will integrate generative AI into its public platform, Stack Overflow for Teams, and into new product areas. The goal is to bring the wealth of knowledge from over 58 million community questions and answers directly into developers' workspaces.

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This process will take place by integrating OvenflowAI into IDE via an extension into Visual Studio Code. This extension will pull validated content from the public platform and Stack Overflow for Teams instances. It will deliver a personalized summary of how programmers can solve the problems, enable them to dig deeper as needed, and document new learnings and solutions. The real win here is that OverflowAI delivers all this while the programmer never has to leave their IDE and lose their flow. 

Of course, other similar extensions, such as GitHub CoPilot, already exist. But in an interview, Prashanth Chandrasekar, Stack Overflow's CEO, said: "Copilot would be a complementary solution. With OverflowAI, we can check, validate, attribute, and confirm accuracy and trustworthiness across the Stack Overflow community and its more than 58 million questions and answers."  

Chandrasekar added: "One core deterrent in AI's adoption is trust in the accuracy of AI-generated content. Stack Overflow's annual Developer Survey of 90,000 coders recently found that 77% of developers are favorable of AI tools, but only 42% trust the accuracy of those tools. OverflowAI developed with the community at the core and with a focus on the accuracy of data and AI-generated content."

The company's also integrating your Stack Overflow for Teams knowledge base with Stack Overflow's new StackPlusOne chatbot. With it, you can get answers to your questions in your Slack channel. This new GenAI integration will provide answers to questions using not just data from your Teams instance, but all Stack Overflow community-validated sources.

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Behind the scenes, OverflowAI has upgraded its platform's search capabilities. Until now, Stack Overflow has relied on lexical search, which matches users with questions and answers based on supplied keywords. However, the introduction of semantic search, built on a vector database, should enable better user queries.  

Semantic vector searching is based on words given a numeric value by machine learning (ML). Large language models, such as Generative Pre-trained Transformer 4 (GPT-4), use these values to determine the relationship between words. It's this approach that powers ChatGPT and many other generative AI chatbots. Now, Stack Overflow is using the approach as well. 

Chandrasekar explained: "Lexical search suffers from a number of significant problems. For example, it's very rigid. If you misspell a keyword or use a synonym, you won't get good results unless someone has done some processing in the index. If you pack a bunch of words into a query -- by, let's say, asking a question as if you were having a conversation with someone -- then you might not match any documents. Lexical search also requires a domain-specific language to get results for anything more than a stack of keywords. It's not intuitive for most people to have to use specialized punctuation and boolean operators to get what you want."

He continued: "With semantic mapping of data, we can avoid the rigidity and strictness of lexical search. You can write your query like a natural language question you'd ask a friend, and get relevant results back in kind. For example, searching for 'how to sort a list of integers in python.'"

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In addition, you can improve the knowledge base yourself. OverflowAI will introduce enterprise knowledge ingestion, a feature that will enable users to curate and build a knowledge base in minutes by leveraging existing accurate and trusted content.

Stack Overflow is also introducing GenAI Stack Exchange, a community that's centered around knowledge sharing about AI tools, and Stack Overflow's Natural Language Processing (NLP) Collective, which includes a new feature called Discussions for debating technical AI and ML approaches, and for sharing perspectives.

The journey to this point has involved a marathon of back-to-back sprints. With the roadmap now public, the next phase begins: bringing these new AI-powered tools to users and customers, while listening to feedback, iterating, and improving. 

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So, what will all this work mean for Stack Overflow and developers? Chandrasekar outlined the expectations: "The future of the Internet and the modern tech landscape isn't going to be measured by web traffic alone -- it's about quality of data, trust in data, and the communities of experts and human beings curating that data. On one hand, the typical first-time coder questions will likely get fewer asks/visits because the answers will be more readily available via AI solutions (including OverflowAI!). 

"However, those same AI tools will lead to a surge of new questions and concerns. On the other hand, generative AI will democratize coding and grow the developer community by several folds, and that growing number of developers will be asking new questions and will also be the ones using this data, and also verifying it while bringing more users to Stack Overflow. For 15 years, we have been a go-to destination for developers, and the additions from OverflowAI will ensure we remain that way for years to come."

For now, OverflowAI is an alpha service. It will go final as the project matures. If all goes well, I believe the project could be production-ready within the next 12 months.  

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