Why We’re Not “Screwed” By AI

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 45 seconds

I am sure many of us have heard this kind of reaction when talking to others about the new AI text generating tools like chatGPT. I get this reaction sometimes when they discover how powerful they are, and most recently, when we tell educators that the AI detectors are not very accurate.

I don’t know think we’re screwed 😁. We have heard this discourse many times before about how AI will transform teaching such that the teachers or institutions will become obsolete. Or something. Or how some jobs will disappear. OK, maybe some. Technology, over time, tends to transform jobs (ATMs instead of human tellers… but there are still human tellers; online library searching versus card catalog and paper periodicals – with all the jobs that were transformed by this). Some will take a neoliberal spin and use the latest tech tool as a way to increase class sizes and reduce teachers, when actually, it is the large class load on teachers that is the problem! No one would *need* to use AI for writing or assessing or grading. Because teachers could focus on what they do best, what they cannot be replaced in.

We’re just navigating new territory and discovering what the boundaries are. But the boundaries will keep shifting on us really quickly, so I think we need to keep digging deeply into what it is we truly value and what it is we really teach, what are students supposed to be learning in our courses and institutions, and what can they learn and do without our support, versus what we bring to the table. AI meant to replace teachers or stuff like that… is not new. Whenever I heard that discourse… those people almost never address the true value of teaching in the sense of caring for students and knowing them as people and supporting them emotionally and being role models for good humans and good citizens. It’s not about getting good enough feedback from a machine, it’s about writing stuff that will be read by a real person who cares about what you think and who you are, and about having a conversation about a topic that matters. Even if AI can help students think critically (and I think that’s possibly close if not here, through tools other than chatGPT), it is about how our critical dialogue will help us make an impact in the world.

One really important and useful analogy is automatic translation. Sure, it has helped some humans get quick translations for a language they don’t know, but for truly important conversations we still need translators or to learn the language so we can understand nuances and make sure we understand the context and intention, and truly use it to connect to others.

Sure, AI will create some beautiful (sometimes) music and maybe humans who can’t play instruments can build on it and work with it and create beautiful things, and it will be a new type of music, but it doesn’t take away the beauty of other music that people play with emotion and with whom you can make eye contact.

We’re not screwed, because we still have our relationships and our uniqueness and our individuality and our collectivity and we need to not fixate on what machines can now do, not let the machines drive us to do things against our values, but also not let the machines distract us from what matters and our mission in life. Which I’m sure no machine can do. But maybe it can help you along. You control the machines, don’t let them control you. But your agency is contingent upon your awareness of how your interaction with the machine can influence you in ways you may or may not intend or prefer. And we need to teach our students these critical skills.

Note: Some of the direction of this conversation is influenced by conversations in the private Twitter DM Continuity with Care, where my friends helped me have a sort of lightbulb moment: “Both MOOC and AI hype build on neoliberal approaches and aim at reducing and devaluing human labor (in the way much tech has been doing for years, but this one more targeted at INTELLECTUAL labor)” (this seems obvious, once you say it aloud, but I think it was useful to say it aloud earlier today, in order to better respond to another friend saying “we’re screwed”).

Feature image of two teachers and a robot… created by AI Image Generator via you.com Imagine, Anime.

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