Elevating the debate around ChatGPT: asking the “why”

In recent weeks, I’ve noticed the discussion of ChatGPT dying down a little as the idea of a machine easily passing as human has become absolutely normal. The debate will start up in earnest soon enough, as Microsoft starts to roll out its AI-enhanced search engine featuring a still problematic ChatGPT. (It’s apparently capable of performing existential dread, who knew?) I know students feel like there’s too much news all the time, too much information: it feels terribly important that New Zealand currently remains in a national state of emergency in the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle, but how many of us really care about this? The tremendous influx of information that AI represents reinforces the old idea: purpose matters.

Yes, it matters that we’re able to tell truth from untruth from partial truth, or when relatively unimportant issues are being discussed as if they were the most key issues in the world. Whenever we’re distracted from the issues that really matter, someone benefits. Ask who. Even before AI was integrated into any search engine, this mattered, and it will matter even more if ChatGPT’s developers are unable to develop its ability to prevent spreading falsehoods, let alone distracting content.

Though data centres and the climate crisis (and everything else) are intricately connected, how ChatGPT and other AI technologies fit into the multiple crises humanity is facing has not been discussed in the mainstream enough. When introducing GP to my new JC students, I often ask them about what they think matters. What’s important? Why do you think you’re studying all of this? What makes the pain and suffering worth it? Simply to find a job in the future? The thing with rapidly developing technology is that it threatens a whole range of jobs — years ago as grammar-checking programs were becoming ever so common, our very own SPH laid off a significant number of subeditors, and one wonders how many more jobs will be made obsolete in the coming years. What does any company owe to their staff?

To me, it is a sign of a lack of galvanising purpose, that many people are neglecting to look further into the impacts of all this technology on the most crucial and urgent issues facing the world today.

There are two narratives that we can use to structure our understanding of the world, and for-profit companies represent the narrative of economic gains at all costs. That narrative is one we’re familiar with: work and work because the highest good in this world is consumption. Joy and peace become the results of consuming well. Even love falls into the narrative of consumption, especially when a certain patriarchal view of romance sees each new partner as some thing to be consumed.

Another narrative is represented by the wisdom traditions of the world that are present in every religion. The idea is that this is all going towards somewhere good. All of history, all humanity, the whole cosmos and all of reality are heading towards some kind of end goal that’s good. In own my tradition, the good thing we’re going towards is a divine love that is both transcendent and immanent. While I know it can be difficult to buy into this narrative, even the story of evolution tells us something similar. And for those who cannot believe it, take comfort that very clever people commit their working lives to discussing complicated things like “evolutionary panentheism” — a fancy way of saying that we’re all moving towards something good.

I think what educators owe to our students has remained the same. When the world is so overwhelming, we carry the immense debt of helping the world move towards goodness and truth by helping our students develop the faculty of knowing when they’re learning in a way that moves them towards knowledge that matters. We move inch by inch away from falsehood and error, inch by inch towards a better place.

In the very near future, I suspect we will see Microsoft’s Bing and ChatGPT shake up the info-scape like Google did when it first was introduced. (Yes, there WAS a time when Google did not exist.) Telling fact from fiction will be important, figuring out what queries to ask Bing-GPT will be important, shaping education to fit the new information environment will be important.

What’s also important is asking why we’re doing all of this.

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Elevating the debate around ChatGPT: asking the “why”

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