The Perils of Public Education

Over the past few months, one could hardly miss the hoopla generated by OpenAI’s ChatGPT4. Developers claim the technology will have an impact similar to the discovery of fire. Others claim it could destroy the human species. 

Those are pretty strong shouts!

You probably read that over a thousand industry experts recently signed an open letter calling for a moratorium on the further development of the technology. Last week, Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, the company behind the development of ChatGPT, appeared before Congress to answer questions. Are large language models really that dangerous?

ChatGPT (I’ll call this AI technology Chat from here on out) provides a step-change advance in widespread access to knowledge. Is that something to fear? Three considerations come to mind as I consider that question:

1. Is Chat truly intelligent?

2. Is Chat uniquely creative?

3. What is required of us to leverage Chat’s capabilities?

First, is Chat truly intelligent?

I love what Alison Gopnik, Prof. of Psychology and Philosophy at U.C. Berkeley, says about the question: “It’s like asking if a submarine can swim.” The answer lies in definitions. How do we define intelligence?It’s not an easy question to answer. In my experience, super-intelligent people usually have phenomenal memories enabling them to recall anything they’ve been exposed to. Chat certainly has that down! If that is all intelligence is, then maybe Chat will level the playing field between super-intelligent people and the rest of us! I tend to think there’s more to it than that.

Is Chat truly creative?

Chat can render pictures, video, music, and computer code from text. That’s pretty impressive. So far, I’ve seen mixed reviews on whether or not that qualifies as creativity. Some artists claim Chat is a soulless parrot incapable of producing art of any value. Others are threatening to sue for copyright infringements. I guess time will tell.

What is required of us to leverage Chat’s capabilities?

There is an important limiting factor with this new technology. One must ask Chat the right question to get a meaningful answer. Asking inciteful questions is not a skill I’ve witnessed in the general population. We all know “book smart” people who have no common sense. Chat clearly demonstrates some impressive capabilities, but human intervention will be required to tap its capabilities in the foreseeable future. 

So, should we fear Chat?

Over the past four months, I’ve read many articles, listened to podcasts, and experimented with the technology. It’s far too early to know where it’s headed, but I’m not particularly concerned about it. 

Here’s why:

1. I do not believe broad access to knowledge is bad. Will it be abused? Of Course! Isn’t all knowledge? 

2. Chat clearly offers mind-blowing capabilities. However, from a big-picture perspective, it’s simply a progression (albeit a large one) of a trend we’ve experienced for quite some time:

-In the 1970s, hand-held calculators liberated us from arithmetic. 

-In the 1990s, the Internet liberated us from the Encyclopedia Britannica.

-In the late 2000s, smartphones put computer power in the palms of our hands. 

-In the 2010s, Google became a verb, giving the masses access to the world’s information. 

-Now, in the 2020s, Chat answers questions and creates content.

There was a time when pundits claimed VCRs would kill the movie industry and that Spotify would destroy the music industry. As it turned out, the technologies fueled additional growth. Yogi Berra was right, “Predictions are really hard, especially about the future.” Will Chat be disruptive? Yes! Is that a bad thing? I don’t believe so!

3. Some fear that Chat is the equivalent of giving evil characters guns? Maybe, but social media has already done that. 

4. Might Chat manipulate us? Who doesn’t believe we aren’t already being manipulated by computer algorithms? 

5. There is one aspect of Chat that gives me pause. Might this new technology represent a form of collective consciousness or pluralistic intelligence? After all, it trains on a good chunk of the entire Internet. All progress rests on the shoulders of predecessors. Given that, Chat might dramatically accelerate progress. To what degree do we trust our collective consciousness? Will goodness, beauty, and truth overbalance greed, power, and control? Perhaps Chat will provide humanity with an opportunity to look in the mirror, and sooner than we expect!  

To a large extent, these questions are moot. Chat is here, and it isn’t going away. 

I am optimistic about the future. From a practical standpoint, one must be; other choices are unacceptable. I believe Chat offers the potential for a major advancement in public education. If that’s a bad thing, then we have more significant problems. 

Frankly, I am thrilled to have a new full-time research assistant!


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One Reply to “The Perils of Public Education”

  1. The most germaine statement of your article is “Chat is here, and it isn’t going away.” Focusing our attention on how to use best to use and live with it is more useful. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle.

    By the way, great photo.


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