Did I Really Write This?

A few years ago, MSN fired all of their reporters and replaced them with artificial intelligence.

“Reporters” might be the wrong word. MSN didn’t report their own news. They used other news sources, and curated their own news site based on the content that they gathered from other places. They found that this could be done just as easily by software as it can by humans. All the software has to do is go out and find news from other sources, paraphrase it to avoid copyright issues, and post it on their own site.

Image source: Mohamed Hassan, PXHere

That worked about as well as you’d expect. Within a few weeks, there were lots of sensationalist, tabloid-like headlines all over the MSN site. Apparently, the switch to AI at MSN happened to coincide with a sudden outbreak of mermaid, bigfoot, and UFO sightings. As it turns out, some of the stuff on the Internet isn’t true. The software had trouble discerning between credible and incredible news reports, and made some big mistakes right out of the gate.

But the software got better, and the outrage died down. I don’t think anyone got their jobs back. Microsoft does not really accept responsibility for the content on the MSN site, saying it’s “created by thousands of the world’s best-known publishing brands.” Note the use of the word “brands” in that statement. They’re not claiming that any of the content has been written by humans, even on the sites they’re taking it from. When it comes to their use of AI on the MSN site, they have this to say:

Microsoft News believes in the power of combining human and machine curation. Something unique and exciting occurs when you combine the power of technology with the experience of seasoned content professionals. Repeat this formula across the world and you’ve got a product that delivers highly relevant, insightful and serendipitous experiences to every user.

Microsoft News feedback – frequently asked questions

News reporting can certainly be formulaic. I’ve read enough news articles and sports reports to wonder if the writers are using Mad Libs to concoct their stories. Just plug the relevant details into the template and click “publish.” I’d like to think that smart, discerning readers can tell the difference between auto-generated copy and something that was hand-crafted by a conscientious correspondent.

But these days I’m not so sure. OpenAI unleashed a trial of ChatGPT last month with astonishing results. Before it was overwhelmed by people trying to kick the tires, I signed up and asked it some questions. What is the role of technology in learning? It gave me a detailed response, articulating the use of tech to deliver, measure, support, and differentiate learning experiences for students. What are the implication of an information-abundant society? It responded with a reasonably coherent analysis of the friction caused as we move from a society where knowledge is power to one where knowledge is everywhere.

I could probably do a better job writing about these topics, but not a MUCH better job. If I gave it a topic that I don’t know much about, I’m pretty confident that it would give me a better result than one I could write on my own in less than a few hours. It certainly writes better — and faster — than I did as a high school student.

It’s a good thing our students don’t know about this.

Calculators reduced the need to memorize arithmetic. (Calm down. I said reduced. I can still multiply two-digit numbers in my head, and you should be able to do that too).

Spell check made spelling words less critical. There are plenty of words I spell wrong nearly every time, and the tech saves me. A couple paragraphs ago, I just took a wild guess at “conscientious” and let the computer figure out what I meant. That doesn’t make me less smart. It just means I’m lazy.

Do I even need to bring up handwriting? My 7th grade teacher was right. “Learn to type, or become a doctor, because I can’t read this.” I don’t like blood, so here we are.

Remembering things, in the age of Google / Siri / Alexa, is a thing of the past. We don’t need to wonder anymore. We have all the answers.

That’s why I’ve advocated — for decades now — for a move toward higher level thinking skills in school. Memorizing dates and names in history is less important than realizing that Shakespeare and the pilgrims were the same time. Stating the law of cosines is less important than knowing when you might want to use it. Education folks call this academic rigor, which is a fancy way of saying that it’s not enough to just remember stuff. We have to apply it, think strategically, and extend that thinking into different domains. We’ve been working on that for a long time now, and we’re getting pretty good at it. Despite mountains of criticism, our schools today look nothing like the ones that I attended as a student. Project-based learning, critical thinking, and collaborative work are all commonplace in our schools. Students are creating new things to show their learning, and in many cases they’re sharing those products with authentic audiences. We’re not just doing multiple choice tests anymore.

But this new AI is revolutionary.

I don’t say that about technology. I’m almost never impressed by new tech. Most of the time, technology solves problems we didn’t know we had while creating new challenges that we don’t know how to face. But I sense that this one is different. This one is personal.

Kids still need to learn to write. That’s not going to change. Just like they need to know how to read and spell and do basic arithmetic. But there’s so much more now. They need to learn to figure out where information is coming from. Who (what) wrote this? Is it credible? What are the sources it’s based on? What do I know about them? What are the biases built into the algorithm? How do I combat disinformation (or even misinformation)? Who wrote the thing that wrote the thing, and what are their motivations?

Yeah. Students are going to cheat on their essays. But honestly, that may be the least of our problems right now.

(Yes, I really wrote it. By hand. I put the words together all by myself. But now, I think I might have to say it.)

One thought on “Did I Really Write This?

  1. Here’s what ChatGPT generated:

    The role of technology in education is to enhance teaching and learning. Technology can be used in various ways in education, such as providing access to educational materials and resources, enabling communication and collaboration, and supporting the assessment and evaluation of students’ progress. In addition, technology can help to individualize instruction and provide students with personalized learning experiences. For example, through the use of adaptive learning technology, students can receive tailored instruction that is tailored to their individual needs and abilities. Overall, the use of technology in education can help to improve educational outcomes and make learning more engaging and effective for students.

    The abundance of information available in today’s world has had a significant impact on society. One of the major changes it has brought about is the way we access, process, and disseminate information. In the past, obtaining information often required a great deal of time and effort, and it was often difficult to verify the accuracy of the information that was available. Today, however, we have access to vast amounts of information through the internet and other digital technologies, and we are able to access and process this information quickly and easily.

    This abundance of information has also had an impact on the way we think and make decisions. With so much information available at our fingertips, it is easier for us to access multiple sources and perspectives, which can help us to make more informed decisions. Additionally, the ability to access and share information quickly and easily has led to a greater emphasis on collaboration and knowledge sharing in society.

    However, the abundance of information has also created some challenges. One of the biggest challenges is the issue of information overload, which occurs when we are bombarded with so much information that it becomes difficult to process and evaluate it effectively. Another challenge is the issue of information accuracy, as it can be difficult to verify the accuracy of the information that is available online. Overall, the abundance of information has had both positive and negative impacts on society.

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