It was the first day of class, and I was one of many students who looked at the math teacher and shook my head in disbelief as we all got reprimanded for something we hadn’t done yet. She was beyond ‘full of crap;’ it was ironic that everyone in the class knew it except her. She was too old and set in her ways to see the world as a place of innovation and advancement. Her words went something like this.
“You may not use a calculator in this class. Never. No exceptions. The old ways are just fine, and we have built a fantastic world without them. You need to thoroughly learn the old ways of math; that is what a classic education is all about. Take this contract home, let your parents read it, sign it, and send it back. If you disagree with these terms, perhaps you shouldn’t be in this advanced class.”
When the bell rang, and we stepped outside, I found Laurie. Laurie sat near me in math class and US History. She was a funny and super-intelligent Jewish girl, and I wondered if she saw the irony of the extremes. The class before math was US History.
“In history, we have freedom of speech. In math? Not so much,” we said. It was funny. Freedom in math meant that Texas Instruments products were formally in the same category as hate speech is today. Don’t you dare! Or else!
In retrospect, our classroom experience was common, not just for our times or teachers. I hear that teachers had a similar response when disposable Bic Pens were first released, and those teachers told their students that they were required to mix their own ink and fill their own pens. They couldn’t use those “shortcuts to learning” that the disposal pen represented. They publicly asked the question,
“Would all writing become disposable, like the pens that made the words?” That is not a joke. It was a social dialog bigger than the temporal ones like transgenderism today and the Korean War at that time.
A few decades later, when Google released its search engine, libraries banned it for parallel reasons. People were scared that the reliable past would be discarded for a philosophically plastic equivalent for knowledge workers.
“Would the hard work of inquiry and research be displaced by a tool that removes the joy of discovery from the heart of the educational experience?” Inquiring minds wanted to know the answer to that. The concept of a “search engine for everyone” was a credible threat.
All these global concern about cultural “cheating” has a thoughtful assumption. Our educational leaders feel that if we let students “skip” traditional learning, they will not learn what we agree they need to learn. Ruminate on that.
If I stare at history, I can see that those assumptions were incorrect about the calculator. Since then, we have seen the invention of the personal computer, smartphone, iWatch, drone delivery technology, portable GPS, and so on; math was really important in all these technologies. Seems like history proved my math teacher was wrong. Having access to a calculator didn’t impede learning and acquiring mathematical knowledge, just hers.
I hear this monolog again in today’s culture with artificial intelligence as I read a link on the future of life. You should read that link, too. It asks world leaders for a temporary ban on deploying advanced AI experiments for six months. They tout the number of people who have signed onto this petition, and they make thoughtful cases. Here are four of them.
“Should we let machines flood our information channels….”
Should we automate away all the jobs, including the fulfilling ones?”
Should we develop nonhuman minds that might eventually outnumber, outsmart, obsolete, and replace us?”
Finally, the big display of concern in this question.
Should we risk the loss of control of our civilization?
For many of you, it is reasonable that you have no experience with Chat GPT (the most common deployment for people like you and me) and you have no idea why those questions were raised. In that sense, you are about as normal as a farmer in the days after world war two when someone in France mentioned that bic pens were now an option for the home and the classroom. There was the same hardcore public pitch to pause, then, too. Alas, the 100 billionth ballpoint pen was sold over a decade ago, and the concerns of that era turned out to be unfounded.
As an author, I love AI. In fact, nothing has enhanced my creative thoughts and sped up my writing like AI. I write historical fiction. I write the stories, and I juxtapose them with real history. I know the characters and the direction I am trying to take them. Yet, I love how quickly I can now get a third-party view.
For example, here is a search I put in AI while writing chapter 27 of my last book.
“Write a story about a senator’s swearing-in ceremony in ancient Rome during the first century for history’s first female senator.”
It gave me a fictional story in about 20 seconds, painted pictures, and used words and thoughts I had never considered. I read the AI output twice. I nodded my head. The story was great. I smiled. I think I even laughed. I was grateful to see things from a different point of view, and I began telling my version of the story. For the record, the output was great, but it wasn’t usable for my style and plan. But it stimulated a line of thinking that I would have spent much longer to discover without AI’s help.
A few days later, I typed in this query.
Write an essay about why a woman would agree to marry a blind man
The output wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but the exploration was appropriate, and it helped me as I created my character’s “big moment” when she married a blind man.
How much did these writing consultants cost me? $0, and about 1 minute of time as I waited for their answer. My net? I got a great piece of literature that took me perhaps 25% of the normal time to create.
Yet, I see the fear in using AI for literature. What if I took that output and said it was mine? What if I changed just a name or a word, then published it as my own?
We have a name in our culture for stealing ideas and claiming them as our own. That is called plagiarism. But what if you steal an idea that was created by a machine and don’t site the machine? Is that illegal? It is moral? Do I give the lawnmower credit when I cut the grass?
We are a long way from completing the discussion on what place AI should play in our culture. I hope you play with it and use it a few times before you judge it. For the most part, our society has always been better off when we defer judgement until we investigate. Go open an account at openai.com and give Chat GPT a chance. It is free and fun.