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Plato mourned the invention of the alphabet, worried that the use of text would threaten traditional memory-based arts of rhetoric. In his “Dialogues,” arguing through the voice of Thamus, the Egyptian king of the gods, Plato claimed the use of this more modern technology would create “forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories,” that it would impart “not truth but only the semblance of truth” and that those who adopt it would “appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing,” with “the show of wisdom without the reality.”
If Plato were alive today, would he say similar things about ChatGPT?
ChatGPT, a conversational artificial intelligence program released recently by OpenAI, isn’t just another entry in the artificial intelligence hype cycle. It’s a significant advancement that can produce articles in response to open-ended questions that are comparable to good high school essays.
It is in high schools and even college where some of ChatGPT’s most interesting and troubling aspects will become clear.
Essay writing is most often assigned not because the result has much value — proud parents putting good grades on the fridge aside — but because the process teaches crucial skills: researching a topic, judging claims, synthesizing knowledge and expressing it in a clear, coherent and persuasive manner. Those skills will be even more important because of advances in A.I.
When I asked ChatGPT a range of questions — about the ethical challenges faced by journalists who work with hacked materials, the necessity of cryptocurrency regulation, the possibility of democratic backsliding in the United States — the answers were cogent, well reasoned and clear. It’s also interactive: I could ask for more details or request changes.
But then, on trickier topics or more complicated concepts, ChatGPT sometimes gave highly plausible answers that were flat-out wrong — something its creators warn about in their disclaimers.
Unless you already knew the answer or were an expert in the field, you could be subjected to a high-quality intellectual snow job.
You would face, as Plato predicted, “the show of wisdom without the reality.”
All this, however, doesn’t mean ChatGPT — or similar tools, because it’s not the only one of its kind — can’t be a useful tool in education.
Schools have already been dealing with the internet’s wealth of knowledge, along with its lies, misleading claims and essay mills.
One way has been to change how they teach. Rather than listen to a lecture in class and then go home to research and write an essay, students listen to recorded lectures and do research at home, then write essays in class, with supervision, even collaboration with peers and teachers. This approach is called flipping the classroom.
In flipped classrooms, students wouldn’t use ChatGPT to conjure up a whole essay. Instead, they’d use it as a tool to generate critically examined building blocks of essays. It would be similar to how students in advanced math classes are allowed to use calculators to solve complex equations without replicating tedious, previously mastered steps.
Teachers could assign a complicated topic and allow students to use such tools as part of their research. Assessing the veracity and reliability of these A.I.-generated notes and using them to create an essay would be done in the classroom, with guidance and instruction from teachers. The goal would be to increase the quality and the complexity of the argument.
This would require more teachers to provide detailed feedback. Unless sufficient resources are provided equitably, adapting to conversational A.I. in flipped classrooms could exacerbate inequalities.
In schools with fewer resources, some students may end up turning in A.I.-produced essays without obtaining useful skills or really knowing what they have written. “Not truth but only the semblance of truth,” as Plato said.
Some school officials may treat this as a problem of merely plagiarism detection and expand the use of draconian surveillance systems. During the pandemic, many students were forced to take tests or write essays under the gaze of an automated eye-tracking system or on a locked-down computer to prevent cheating.
In a fruitless arms race against conversational A.I., automated plagiarism software may become supercharged, making school more punitive for monitored students. Worse, such systems will inevitably produce some false accusations, which damage trust and may even stymie the prospects of promising students.
Educational approaches that treat students like enemies may teach students to hate or subvert the controls. That’s not a recipe for human betterment.
While some students lag, advanced A.I. will create a demand for other advanced skills. The Nobel laureate Herbert Simon noted in 1971 that as information became overwhelming, the value of our attention grew. “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention,” as he put it. Similarly, the ability to discern truth from the glut of plausible-sounding but profoundly incorrect answers will be precious.
Already, Stack Overflow, a widely used website where programmers ask one another coding-related questions, banned ChatGPT answers because too many of them were hard-to-spot nonsense.
Why rely on it at all, then?
At a minimum, because it will soon transform many occupations. The right approach when faced with transformative technologies is to figure out how to use them for the betterment of humanity.
Betterment has been a goal of public education for at least the past 150 years. But while a high school diploma once led to a better job, in the past few decades, the wages of high school graduates have greatly lagged those of college graduates, fostering inequality.
If A.I. enhances the value of education for some while degrading the education of others, the promise of betterment will be broken.
Plato erred by thinking that memory itself is a goal, rather than a means for people to have facts at their call so they can make better analyses and arguments. The Greeks developed many techniques to memorize poems like the “Odyssey,” with its more than 12,000 lines. Why bother to force this if you can have it all written down in books?
As Plato was wrong to fear the written word as the enemy, we would be wrong to think we should resist a process that allows us to gather information more easily.
As societies responded to previous technological advances, like mechanization, by eventually enacting a public safety net, a shorter workweek and a minimum wage, we will also need policies that allow more people to live with dignity as a basic right, even if their skills have been superseded. With so much more wealth generated now, we could unleash our imagination even more, expanding free time and better working conditions for more people.
The way forward is not to just lament supplanted skills, as Plato did, but also to recognize that as more complex skills become essential, our society must equitably educate people to develop them. And then it always goes back to the basics. Value people as people, not just as bundles of skills.
And that isn’t something ChatGPT can tell us how to do.
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