Opinion | Even if AI writes our texts, we must continue to learn to think for ourselves

“Rewrite the constitution like a rap” or “write a prophecy about Bitcoin in the style of the Bible book of Revelations.” Chances are you’ve come across such curious assignments in recent weeks. The new AI software ChatGPT from technology company OpenAI successfully performs these types of assignments. Within seconds.

Chatbot ChatGPT was recently launched and it exploded on the internet. It generates working computer code for you. It gives you an explanation of quantum mechanics or Kant’s philosophy in the form of a sonnet. It comes up with a television commercial for intestinal flora-friendly chewing gum. It improves your speeches and writes love letters – in your own style, or Shakespeare’s, of course. The possibilities are inexhaustible.

The amazement and enthusiasm among AI experts and linguists worldwide shows that it is not just the latest tech gimmick. It is a radical development, comparable to the introduction of the search engine. Anyone who has recently tried out ChatGPT must have wondered what the impact will be.

Problem for education?

A lot of attention was immediately focused on one sector: education. Will students submit their homework assignments to ChatGPT from now on? What will it mean for the essay, the classic instrument for testing students and teaching them how to write and argue? It turns out to be extremely easy for students to have their essays generated by AI. In the opinion of teachers, ChatGPT writes papers of a comparable level to that of an average bachelor student. Not brilliant, not very original, but essentially no different from what lecturers usually see. There seems to be no clear way to prove artificial authorship as yet. What does it mean for the future of education if students can outsource writing assignments to AI?

Some make the connection with the calculator or Wikipedia. After all, there was a similar panic about that. If we go a little further back, we even find consternation in Plato about the use of writing and its disastrous consequences for memory. If this analogy is correct, there is little cause for fundamental concern. We just have to learn to work with it. The calculator and Wikipedia have indeed reduced the importance of mental arithmetic and ready factual knowledge. Not a disaster. All the more attention to mathematics and the interpretation of facts.

Our democracy is based on a highly developed language and understanding capacity

Should we also see text-generating AI in this way? Does it take unnecessary routine tasks off your hands, such as writing texts correctly, so that there is more time for deepening? Instead of learning to write, can’t we better teach students to ‘prompt’ (giving an assignment to AI chatbots) from now on?

I think we should watch out for this. The analogy is incorrect. More than mental arithmetic or factual knowledge, it is now about essential human skills that we cannot outsource. Or rather: which we must want to keep at all costs. Language skills are more than forming correct sentences. It also includes conceptual understanding, arguing, making connections, creative expression of complex emotions and thoughts.

Read an opinion piece generated by ChatGTP here: Stay vigilant as the line between real and AI blurs

Write for yourself, think for yourself

I notice it time and time again: you only think clearly when you can put your thoughts on paper. Until they are put into words, they remain a vague tangle in your head. The craft of writing and good use of language are inextricably linked to the ability to think. If students want to learn to think clearly, they must learn to write themselves. Learning to ‘prompt’ is no substitute for that.

Of course, working well with AI also requires understanding. But it is a more passive form of thinking that outsources much of the laborious mental work to a system.

Much is at stake. Our democracy is based on a highly developed language and understanding capacity. It requires an understanding of difficult concepts such as tolerance, public interest and the rule of law. It assumes that citizens are familiar with argumentation and conceptual connections.

Learning to use the word is therefore one of the most difficult, but most important parts of our education. Something like the essay, or in a broader sense, the humanities based on it, remain necessary. A new form must be found for this. For example, orally, or writing an essay on the spot without tools. What must in any case remain central is learning to think for yourself and therefore formulate it in language.

Also read this opinion piece: Restrict the use of ChatGPT

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