Let's say you are a teacher and you assign your students to write an essay (an assignment) on learning styles at home. So one of your students brings you an essay with the following opening paragraph:
The "construction" of "learning styles" is problematic because it fails to explain the processes through which learning styles are formed. Some students may develop a particular style because they have had particular experiences. Others may develop another style trying to adapt to a learning environment that was not well suited to their learning needs. Ultimately, we need to understand the interactions between learning styles, environmental and personal factors, and how they shape how we learn, and the kinds of learning we experience.
What grade would you give? A- or B+? Mike Sharples, a professor in the UK, used GPT-3, a large language model from OpenAI that automatically generates text. (The entire essay, which Sharples reviewed at graduate level, is available, complete with references, here.) Personally, I'm leaning towards B+. The passage reads like an addendum, but so do most student essays.
Sharples' intention was to urge educators to "rethink teaching and assessment" in light of technology, which, he said, "could become an important gift for unruly students, a powerful teaching aid, or a very creative tool".
Essay creating today is neither theoretical nor futuristic. In May, a student in New Zealand confessed to using AI to write his papers, justifying it as a tool like Grammarly or spell check:
"I have the knowledge, I have the lived experience, I'm a good student, I go to all the seminars and all the lectures, I read everything there is to read, but I felt like I was being punished for not writing eloquently and it felt like it wasn't right," she said.
She didn't feel like she was cheating because the guidelines for students at their university state that you can't get someone else to do the homework for you. GPT-3 is not “someone else” – it is a program.
The world of genetic artificial intelligence is moving at a crazy pace. Last week, OpenAI released an advanced chatbot named Chat GPT, which can write rhyming poems. Google is testing new apps that will let users describe concepts in text and see them rendered as images. It might still take a bit of effort for someone interested in finding a text generator app, but not for long.
Theses, and especially undergraduate theses, have been at the center of humanities pedagogy for generations. It's how we teach young people how to research, think and write. This whole tradition will have to be changed from the beginning.
Kevin Bryan, associate professor at the University of Toronto, wrote on Twitter with a surprise about OpenAI's new chatbot last week: “You can't take exams at home anymore. Even on specific questions that need a combination of knowledge in different domains, OpenAI's conversation is honestly better than the average graduate student at this point. It's honestly amazing.”
There has been a divide between humanists and technologists for a long time. In the 1950s, CP Snow wrote the famous “The Two Cultures”, describing the humanities and scientific communities as tribes losing touch with each other.
"Literary intellectuals at one pole — scientists at the other," Snow wrote. “Between the two there is a gulf of mutual incomprehension – sometimes (especially among the young) hostility and antipathy, but mostly a lack of understanding. They have a strange distorted image of each other." Snow's argument was a plea for a kind of intellectual cosmopolitanism: literary men have lost essential knowledge of the laws of thermodynamics, and scientists are ignorant of the glories of Shakespeare and Dickens.
Humanities and technological sciences together
The rift Snow identified has now deepened. In today's technological world, the value of a humanities education alone seems to be diminishing. THE Sam Bankman Fried, founder of crypto exchange FTX that recently lost $16 billion in a few days, is a “proud” illiterate. "I would never read a book," he once said in an interview.
The extraordinary ignorance of the issues of society and history displayed by men and women reshaping society and history is the hallmark of the social media age.
The value of the humanities in a technologically defined world was demonstrated with Steve Jobs. He always believed that an important part of Apple's success was the time he spent at Reed College, dabbling in Shakespeare and modern dance, along with the calligraphy class that provided him with the aesthetic basis for designing the Mac.
“A lot of people in our industry haven't had a lot of different experiences. So they don't have enough dots to connect and come up with very linear solutions without some broad perspective on the problem." he said Jobs. "The broader the understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have." Apple is a humanitarian technology company. It is also the largest company in the world.
Now there is GPT-3. Many practical issues are at stake: Humanities departments judge their undergraduates on their papers. They award PhDs based on the composition of a thesis. What will happen when this technology improves significantly? Academia has very little time to deal with this new reality: two years for students to understand the technology, another two to three years for professors to recognize that their students are using it, and then perhaps another five to make decisions the university…..