School, AI, and You
You happen to be a student at a fascinating moment in the history of information and technology. It is not unlike being a student in the years when the search engine, or the personal computer, or even the printing press were first popularized.
ChatGPT, and other language models like it, offer a new way of interacting with information. Decades ago the search engine revolutionized research by giving all of us access to a seemingly endless number of sources. If we have a question about how to replace a radiator in our car, a search engine can point us to thousands of videos and websites that each claim to give us the right answer. ChatGPT, on the other hand, will take information from those very sources and attempt to formulate an actual answer to your question.
Search engines can point you to sources where you can find answers to your question; ChatGPT can answer the question itself. Or at least try to.
Just as search engines cannot guarantee that the websites, videos, and documents they point you towards are actually good and true, ChatGPT similarly cannot promise that the answers it gives to your questions are good and true, or even factual.
In our academic context, these AI tools can be used in at least three ways.
- As a form of blatant plagiarism
- As a shortcut for the hard work of critical thinking
- As a potentially helpful tool for initial research
My recommendation in the short-term is this: for now, don’t use it at all for your academic work.
Way One: Blatant Plagiarism The first way you can use it—as a form of blatant plagiarism—is not only easier to detect than you think, but a serious breach of your own academic integrity.
Representing an AI bot’s answer as your own—even if you modified that answer significantly—is a clear form of academic dishonesty. You know this already, but I think it is worth sharing again at this point.
Way Two: As a shortcut for the hard work of critical thinking The second way to use it—as a shortcut—seems better than the first on the surface, but it actually has long-term effects that are just as bad, if not worse.
When new technologies emerge, it often takes some time for a society to recognize the unintended consequences of that new technology. Nuclear technology emerged relatively rapidly in the twentieth century. It eventually led to the rise of both nuclear weapons and microwavable bacon. Put mildly, both are detrimental to human flourishing.
This is where we are with ChatGPT: we are impressed that it can do some things well, but we are not quite sure what the long-term unintended consequences will be.
What will society look like a generation from now if most of today’s students shortcut the process of learning to think slowly and critically about things that matter most?
What will a church, or city, or family look like if it is made up of a large percentage of people with underdeveloped intellectual muscles, who lack the strength to think wisely on their own, and instead outsource their thinking to an algorithm? (One that, even according to its creators, does not actually think, but rather attempts to piece together what others have thought.)
Using AI as a shortcut to critical thinking is wrong because it falls short of academic honesty.
But it is especially wrong because in taking the shortcut you are missing out on developing a mental muscle that your friends, your parents, and your future spouses, children, fellow Christians, and co-workers all need you to have.
Way Three: As a potentially helpful tool for initial research I do think there could be a way for this new technology to be used properly as a tool that helps you think more deeply about important academic questions you are facing. I have a hunch that when used as a research tool to discover excellent sources—not to answer important questions themselves—it may have something to offer students today and in the future.
But I don’t yet know how to pull this off myself, and therefore I am highly skeptical about your ability to do so at this point.
We will have more to share about these things with you, your parents, and our wider school community as we prepare for next school year.
But for now, I want to leave you with this: There is a lot you can do with ChatGPT and tools like it.
You can blatantly plagiarize, and get caught. You can blatantly plagiarize, and not get caught. You can use it as a shortcut to deep, critical thinking and get caught. You can use it as a shortcut to deep, critical thinking and not get caught.
And in each of the scenarios above, you are doing yourself, your community, and your future self and future community a deep disservice.
So again, let me echo my recommendation: leave it unused, for now, in all of your academic work.
In his wisdom, God gave us each a will that is independent from his own. This means that you are free to take this advice or leave it.
But I hope that you take this as an opportunity to heed advice from someone a little further down the road than you are, and that you trust that following this advice will make you more fully human in the long run. This is a good thing for you and for all those whose lives are closely linked to yours.