What the machine said
On the limited remaining time for the take-home exam, the B- work from ChatGPT, and Winston Churchill's defiant run-on sentences
It is possible that the fears of some are correct and some of the classic tools of student assessment are soon to be rendered obsolete by artificial-intelligence writing tools that are rocketing ahead in their technological sophistication. What teacher will be able to assign take-home quizzes or unsupervised written essays, if finding the right answer or getting a passable submission takes no more effort than entering a natural-language question into a website and submitting the results?
■ The quality of outputs produced by ChatGPT is fairly good and likely to improve as the tools become more sophisticated. More training, more inputs, and more feedback will all nudge towards higher-quality output. As it is, "C"-worthy work (or perhaps even "B-") is already available for free.
■ But no matter how sophisticated the technology, though, there is a firm ceiling on the performance that is possible from technology alone. Submit a request for "a brief statement on the moral case for self-defense, in the style of Winston Churchill", and ChatGPT produces a serviceable response. In part, it declares, "It is a natural and inherent right, embedded in our very humanity, that enables us to protect ourselves and our loved ones from harm [...] We must never surrender this right, nor permit it to be infringed upon by any force or authority."
■ It's not half-bad. But it's also not what Churchill actually said: "We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender..."
■ As good as artificial intelligence may ever become at generating text, it will likely never have the capacity to take bold risks with language. It cannot afford to generate chance-taking results because those get rejected -- the whole point of turning to a computer for an answer is to come up with a "sure thing". By definition, any digital computing system will tend to conform to rules, rather than breaking them.
■ Selectively breaking rules, though, is what makes writers great. Churchill's run-on sentence would never pass muster by ordinary standards. But it was precisely the crescendo of defiance that his people needed to hear. Computers may be on the way to replace the middling work of the world, but they have no plausible aspirations to greatness.