Repost: Being human in the face of AI language tools.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Can articulating a conception of judgment provide us with inspiration on how we might use the advent of AI to raise the standards on what it is to be human?

Cantwell Smith

My synopsis: Rather than being something to fear, dread, or use to shirk responsibility, AI language models like ChatGPT afford the opportunity to step up and be our best human selves.

ChatGPT killed the student essay? Philosophers call bullshit

Dylan J. White, Philosophy PhD Student, University of Guelph and Joshua August (Gus) Skorburg, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, University of Guelph

That students can cheat more efficiently with ChatGPT does not warrant claims about the death of the student essay. (Shutterstock)

Since ChatGPT was released, many commentators are sounding the alarm about an artificial intelligence (AI) takeover, suggesting that professors will soon be out of a job, or that the student essay is dead.

This is reactionary and misguided. ChatGPT, by its very nature, cannot do the kinds of things we ought to want student essays to do.

ChatGPT does not, and cannot, like other AI, give a damn: In the words of philosopher John Haugeland, AI cannot possibly give a damn, as nothing matters to it.

ChatGPT does, however, pose a unique set of challenges and opportunities when it comes to education and assessment — some of which ChatGPT has not so much created as brought to light with new urgency.

Beyond existing shortcuts facilitated by online tools that predate ChatGPT, students and educators may have lost sight of some of the skills and values that essay writing is meant to develop — namely, judgment and giving a damn.

Shortcuts already abound

A ghost is seen above the words ghostwriter.
There will always be students who use shortcuts. (Shutterstock)

Does this require educators to stop to think about — and potentially change — some of our teaching and assessment practices? Absolutely.

Does ChatGPT signal the death of critical thinking? Quite the opposite.

Let’s first consider the landscape before ChatGPT arrived on the scene. Online textual summaries and ready-made analyses offering shortcuts to actual reading and understanding have been readily accessible.

Essay mills are easy to find, and as The Washington Post reports, “online tests have also meant a booming business for companies that sell homework and test answers, including Chegg and Course Hero.”

There will always be students who use these shortcuts. Teachers and administrators will do their best to catch them, but some will inevitably get away with it.

Novel feature of ChatGPT

A genuinely novel feature of ChatGPT, however, is the speed and ease with which students can take shortcuts to bypass the difficult processes of reading, understanding, thinking and writing.

Before, students may have had to browse multiple websites or shared cloud documents and piece together their findings. Now, a series of prompts from their smartphone will do.

But why should speed and ease be the change that make a difference? The efficiency with which students can now cheat does not warrant claims about the death of the student essay.

These problems have been around since long before the arrival of ChatGPT. They’re just harder to ignore now.

A student seen earnestly working at a laptop.
Desire to bypass the difficult processes of reading, understanding, thinking and writing has been around since before ChatGPT. (Tim Gouw/Unsplash)

No understanding: a bullshitter?

What about the essays that ChatGPT produces?

Yes, ChatGPT can often cogently answer straightforward essay prompts, but these essays show no regard for understanding, judgment or truth. When we asked ChatGPT to explain itself to a group of philosophy students, it readily admits “it doesn’t have any understanding of the world, beliefs or moral values.”

This had led some commentators to suggest ChatGPT is a “bullshitter” in the philosophical sense of that term: According to the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, whereas a liar must to some extent be responding to the truth, the bullshitter has no regard for truth or falsity — their “eye is not on the facts at all.”

The bullshitter merely makes things up as they see fit, to suit their purposes.

Screenshot showing a query explain ChatGPT to a group of third-year philosophy students.
ChatGPT readily admits it has no understanding of the world, beliefs or moral values. (Dylan J. White), Author provided

AI does not care what it says

It is tempting to see ChatGPT in this light, but this doesn’t go far enough. True, ChatGPT has no regard for the truth. How could it?

It’s not just that ChatGPT is a bullshitter with no regard for the truth, but that it has no regard for anything.

Philosopher Evan Selinger puts this well:

“OpenAI can’t make a technology that truly cares because that requires consciousness, inner experiences, an independent perspective and emotions. To care, you need to put things in perspective, offer respect, take offense when appropriate and provide camaraderie.”

This is why ChatGPT, by its very nature, cannot do the kinds of things that we ought to want student essays to do. The “essays” it produces have no regard for the truth, demonstrate no understanding and have not even a hint of caring about what is said.

Genuine stakes

What ought we want a student essay to do? What writing skills are valuable for students to develop? There are many plausible answers, all of which will vary from classroom to classroom.

But overall, a compelling answer is captured by what Brian Cantwell Smith, a philosopher of artificial intelligence, calls judgment — a form of thought that is deliberative, open-minded, grounded by caring and responsible action and context appropriate.

A student seen writing at a laptop.
Caring about what you write requires emotions, an independent perspective and being aware of what’s at stake. (Shutterstock)

Judgment requires the agent to be normatively situated within a world — in other words, to care about itself in relation to the people and things around it. As Cantwell Smith writes:

“Only with existential commitment, genuine stakes and passionate resolve to hold things accountable to being in the world can a system (human or machine) genuinely…distinguish truth from falsity, respond appropriately to context and shoulder responsibility.”

That is, understanding and judgment require giving a damn — and this is what teachers and our society at large ought to want student essays to reflect.

Raising the standards on being human

As Cantwell Smith asks: “can articulating a conception of judgment provide us with inspiration on how we might use the advent of AI to raise the standards on what it is to be human?”

What we have argued here suggests the answer is a clear and unequivocal yes.

Zed or Zee? A crisis of Canadian identity

Recently, I have had several conversations with my children that would suggest I don’t feel as old as I think I may actually be. I am a child of the 70s. I grew up on Sesame Street, Mr Dressup, Mr Rogers and the Friendly Giant. I knew the difference between the CBC and PBS, and the difference was simple: when I watched Sesame Street on CBC, the alphabet ended in Zed and the second language was French, while in the same show on PBS, the alphabet ended in Zee and the second language was Spanish. Thus began my sense of Canadian identity, and, as for many of my generation, it was centered on how we talk and spell and how those things proved we were not American.

My kids span the line between the Millennial and Gen Zee generations – and please note that I have to write “Gen Zee”, because if I write it “Gen Z” I will say it out loud as “Gen Zed”. It took most of my childhood years to figure out why the heck a slogan like “EZ-clean” held any meaning whatsoever. And when I did finally clue in, I reconciled it by thinking “well, that’s fine if you’re American, but otherwise it’s just silly.”

More than one of my kids has taken pretty strong exception to my insistence that Canadians call it Zed and not Zee. My stubborn adherence to these subtle speech and language differences apparently causes me to come across as stubborn, petty and chauvinistic. This is not how I want to be described.

But in mild self-defence and an effort to find perspective, let’s consider that in my adult lifetime, I have watched the following sweeping changes in the way the Canadians around me speak and write:

  • We’ve moved, almost completely, from Zed to Zee
  • We call the country to the south of us America, not the United States
  • We move, in school, from the 7th to the 8th grade, not from Grade VII to Grade VIII
  • We opt to leave out the u in colour, neighbour, favour, humour, and behaviour. We increasingly choose between US and UK spelling, and there is less and less tolerance for anything in between.

Canadians have struggled with their national identity as long as the country has been in existence. Hundreds of thousands of words have been written on the subject, coming to all kinds of conclusions ranging from the sincere to the ridiculous:

  • there is no such thing, really – it’s political, not cultural
  • Canadian identity is whatever makes us not American
  • it’s about hockey, poutine, and Tim Hortons (which was, ironically, absorbed by American corporate interest)
  • it’s about balancing unity with inclusion and diversity
  • it’s about being polite and apologetic
  • it’s about being liked internationally

Recognizing the complexity of the question of Canadian identity, my simple aim here is to come to terms with “Zed vs Zee” in a way that will make me a better person. And that’s it, really: how does being Canadian make me a better global citizen?

Being Canadian is important to me because I have a life-long belief that my country stands up for decency. To me, being a decent human being means understanding my place in the world as a global citizen, as a member of the most powerful and influential species on the planet. We’ve heard it many times: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

It will take me a long time before I stop cringing when my kids say “Zee” and refer to “the 10th grade,” but I will get there. I will bite my tongue when they tell me about something they heard happening “in America” or if they spell colour without a U. I will let these things go in favour of promoting good citizenship within and beyond our national borders.

When I dig deep, what I really want is for the next generation to understand how things work in Canada and how Canada’s relationship to the rest of the world matters more than how we “identify” as Canadians. I want them to appreciate the privileges that living here affords us. I want them to vote and to exercise their right from an informed place and an impassioned state of mind. I want them to remember that of all the species on the planet, human beings hold the most power over, and thus the greatest responsibility for, life on Earth.

Our national identity is useful only to the extent that it makes us better people. Ultimately, if being Canadian means that I strive to be a decent human being, I’m all for it, regardless of how we get from A to Zed. Namaste.