Monday, February 6, 2023

Artificial intelligence - instant gratification but what do we learn?

Photo by Joakim Honkasalo on Unsplash

Artificial intelligence (AI) has become the default centre of attention in education this year with enthusiasts telling us to accept and even welcome it into our teaching and learning whilst sceptics are busy looking for tools that can detect AI-generated texts, videos and images in order to combat the expected wave of cheating. The tech giants are already on the case with Microsoft planning to embed ChatGPT and now Google has announced a launch of their version of the tool. There's big money to be made out there and lots of data to be harvested and distilled. 

Cheating in exams is probably the least of our worries. This eternal battle reminds me of the wonderful Spy versus spy cartoons in Mad magazine where two spies, identical except for one being dressed in white, the other in black, engage in a never-ending tit-for-tat battle using all sorts of secret weapons. Every new secret weapon prompts an even better anti secret-weapon weapon in a parody of the cold war antics of the USA and the USSR. In recent years we've had waves of plagiarism detection tools countered with essay mills where you can buy off-the-shelf essays or pay someong else to write it all for you. Interestingly the biggest vendor of plagiarism detection software Turnitin has announced its own AI-detection software. And so it goes on. It's time to break this war of attrition by changing to other forms of assessment based on personal reflection, interviews and projects. Many teachers have already made this transition. 

A more balanced response to AI in education appears in an article on SlateYou’re Not Going to Like How Colleges Respond to ChatGPT. The authors see the spy versus spy scenario as one orchestrated by the tech companies so that educators will feel forced to invest in AI detection software (you can bet your life that this will need to be updated regularly and create a never-ending income stream).

Whenever fears of technology-aided plagiarism appear in schools and universities, it’s a safe bet that technology-aided plagiarism detection will be pitched as a solution. Almost concurrent with the wave of articles on the chatbot was a slew of articles touting solutions. A Princeton student spent a chunk of his winter break creating GPTZero, an app he claims can detect whether a given piece of writing was done by a human or ChatGPT. Plagiarism-detection leviathan Turnitin is touting its own “A.I.” solutions to confront the burgeoning issue. Even instructors across the country are reportedly catching students submitting essays written by the chatbot. OpenAI itself, in a moment of selling us all both the affliction and the cure, has proposed plagiarism detection or even some form of watermark to notify people of when the tech has been used. Unfortunately, the tool released is, according to the company, “not fully reliable.”

Once again it's a case of whether we should develop new technologies just because we can and then let the world deal with the consequences. Who benefits? Certainly not educators or students but then again nobody asked us.

However, one thing we can be sure of is this: OpenAI is not thinking about educators very much. It has decided to “disrupt” and walk away, with no afterthought about what schools should do with the program.

The texts produced by AI are often impressive - articles with references, instant summaries, creative writing, poetry, programming - but the shortcomings are becoming clearer as people experiment more deeply. Basically it reformulates what it finds on the sources it trawls, including some that would not be considered reliable, and sometimes it simply makes a guess at an answer, as Maha Bali describes in How *Not* To Be Overly Impressed with #ChatGPT. These flaws make it untrustworthy at present but I suspect it will improve very rapidly.

Yes, it's impressive to get an instant blog post or essay but what do you learn from that? Isn't learning all about doing this ourselves: researching other sources, working out connections, following a train of thought and putting it all together in a coherant text? The instant answer teaches you nothing. There are no magic shortcuts to learning as we should have realised by now after so many commercially driven hype cycles around things like smartboards, iPads, MOOCs, virtual reality and so on. The learning process is complex and takes place in your head, irrespective of the gadgets you have available. The Slate article continues:

To outsource idea generation to an A.I. machine is to miss the constant revision that reflection causes in our thinking. Not to mention that the biggest difference between a calculator and ChatGPT is that a calculator doesn’t have to check its answer against the loud chaos of everything toxic and hateful that has ever been posted on the internet.

AI will soon be able to write fact and fiction, compose music, produce art works, write programs, design clothes, automatically translate from one language to another and much more. When all this has been automated what is left for us to do apart from endless consumption? We need to learn how to use AI for our benefit but focus more on our own creative energy and the value of learning for our own development. We must not simply accept technology just because it's there. 

It’s a failure of imagination to think that we must learn to live with an A.I. writing tool just because it was built.
AI is developing fast and I'm struggling to make some kind of sense of it and how it affects education. Please view this post as muddled work in progress.

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