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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Flash Fill

Sometimes it just takes a simple new feature in a popular piece of software to remind us how computer science just does cool stuff.

Excel 2013 has a new feature, Flash Fill, where you can reformat data by giving an example or two. If you have a column of names like

Manuel Blum
Steve Cook
Juris Hartmanis
Richard Karp
Donald Knuth

You can start a column to the right and type
Blum, M.
Cook, S.
and the rest of the table gets filled in automatically.

Flash Fill is based on a 2011 POPL paper by Sumit Gulwani (later a CACM highlight). It's been explained to me as applying machine learning to binary decision diagrams.

Flash Fill allows a user to manipulate data without having to write macros or Perl scripts. Someone with no technical background can use Flash Fill and enjoy the CS goodness inside without even knowing it is there.


  1. I assume the second line should have read 'Cook, S.', unless the idea is that it takes the last name and picks a random first initial. (Which would also at times be useful, but for different purposes than these.)

  2. Fantablastic stuff! Only SumitG could do this.