Written by Michael Claxton
Alexander Pope famously said, “Be not the first by whom the new are tried, nor the last to lay the old aside.” I confess I’m often guilty of the latter, but seldom of the former — though I was an early adopter of Zebra Cakes in the ’80s.
I want credit for that. Back then they were called Snak Cakes, and many feared the end of homemade desserts. Bakers were threatening a boycott. Congress was considering a nationwide ban. But I stood up. While frightened laggards were still coddling their Moon Pies, I took a bite for the future and never looked back.
Chances are you’ve heard at least one conversation during the last five months about ChatGPT. The new artificial intelligence chatbot launched last November and has set the world’s collective hair on fire.
ChatGPT does research. It organizes information. It can write papers. It can create annotated bibliographies. It can compose poems. It can write computer code. It can draft college application essays. High school students everywhere are asking, “Is this for real?” And their teachers are asking, “Are they still hiring at Wendy’s?”
I have been in several conversations on this subject, and I’m hearing everything from intellectual fascination to full-blown panic. Many academics have spent hours playing with the new AI, much the same way that as a kid I played with fireworks — riveted by the very things that would burn me.
Last week, hundreds of tech leaders signed a petition urging a pause in AI research. I understand why. You don’t have to make melodramatic predictions about a cyborg Armageddon to find ChatGPT troubling.
Yes, it can create an annotated bibliography, but it often makes up sources that do not exist. One colleague asked it to find and review a TED Talk, and the AI invented one. Of course, the whole point of research is to find out information that is, in fact, true.
“ChatGPT.5 will get better,” they say. That isn’t comforting.
It can write an essay that matches a requested skill level. Why offer that option except to help a B-level writer fool the teacher?
I’ve heard of students using it to write law-school application essays. Let’s think about that. Setting aside the ethical issue, the primary skill a lawyer needs is the ability to argue. The first case you as a would-be lawyer must win is to convince Yale to admit you. If you cannot even do that, how in the world will you get Mrs. McGillicuddy acquitted of grand larceny?
Will you ask Siri, “How do I get an acquittal for grand larceny?” And if Siri knows the answer, why does Mrs. McGillicuddy need you?
So far, ChatGPT has tell-tale flaws. It knows little of current or local events. It can only draw information from the internet, and there’s a ton of information in subscription databases that it does not have access to. Its language can be stilted. It stinks as a poet. If you give your girlfriend a ChatGTP poem, she will dump your lazy behind.
And that’s really the crux of the matter. As the tech apologists will tell you, ChatGPT is only a tool. It’s how you use it that matters. It will, they say, simplify tedious research and free us to do more important tasks. It will do for writing, they say, what the calculator did for math.
But you don’t start out in math with calculators. You first learn to work with numbers the hard way so you can develop basic skills and exercise your brain. Doing tedious research is how we learn — how we develop persistence and figure out what questions to ask, how we discover unexpected gems of data, how we learn to ask experts and grow from those conversations.
Writing that awkward love poem shows you dare to be creative. Writing that application essay shows you have the courage to tell your own story. Figuring out commas and dangling modifiers and italics teaches you discipline and attention to detail. And doing your own homework reveals character.
Don’t you yearn to have real skills? Finding fake TED Talks is hardly a marketable talent.
Yet all around me, I hear people already throwing in the towel. “We must completely change the way we teach to deal with this new reality.” I have heard this refrain before. Once per year, it seems, Silicon Valley blares over the loudspeaker, “We have made something new. Please rearrange your lives around it.” “OK,” we drone in unison.
My father worked at a printing company all his life. Among other things, he ran a manual paper cutter. He knew how to lift huge reams of paper without hurting his back and how to shift the gears that operate the knife without losing a hand. One day, the company purchased a new, digital paper cutter. My dad looked at it and said, “That’s my ticket out of here.” He retired soon after.
He was older then than I am now. Even if AI is my ticket, I am too young to punch it. I must fight. I defended Zebra Cakes, but this is different. I’m not ready to change everything I know to accommodate a technology that’s barely five months old.
“But it’s the future,” they say. Are we OK with technocrats dictating the future? Italy just banned ChatGPT. Give me that petition — I’ll sign it.