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The Artificial Intelligence Quandary

The Artificial Intelligence Quandary
Bob Bowman

"It's the end of the world as we know it..."  R.E.M.

When I was in junior high school, handheld calculators (with four functions: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division) became more affordable and started appearing in the hands of students.  By more affordable, I mean they were around $25, which was still a lot of money back then.  Heck, you could get a full meal at McDonald's for under $1 if that helps put it in perspective.  But as I went through high school, more students began to have calculators as the price dropped below $10.  This was new technology, and it dramatically disrupted math and science education.  

For those senior citizens (of which I am one) in my vast readership, you might remember log tables and slide rulers.  My 11th grade chemistry teacher forbade calculators and instead made us use this old school method.  He and many of his colleagues preached that reliance on machines for mathematical calculations demonstrated intellectual weakness and would be our generation's downfall.  Well,  we know how their prognostication went: poorly.  The ability to use scientific/programmable calculators with unbelievable computing power is now expected in high level math and science classes.  Teaching and learning adapted to this new technology and students spent less time on rote mathematics and more time on the evaluation and interpretation of data.  Imagination and innovation became essential skills as students used calculators (and now computers) to access scientific fields where the relevant numbers were very small (with prefixes like nano-, pico-, femto-...) or very large (giga-, tera- and peta-...).  The calculator opened access to whole new worlds.  Time could be spent on understanding and the number crunching could be left to machines.

The next step in the evolution of thinking and learning is now upon us: artificial intelligence (AI).  If you google artificial intelligence, you will find there are four types of AI, or there are seven types of AI, or there are three types of AI, plus you will find many, many definitions of AI.  I like the definition; it is straightforward and perfectly fine for this blog.  Artificial Intelligence is the ability of a digital computer or computer-controlled robot to perform tasks commonly associated with intelligent beings.  The news has been filled with fascinating revelations of AI creating art and fiction, holding conversations with humans, and solving highly complex problems rapidly and creatively.  

Yet, as an educator, there is a current piece of AI software available online, created by, that is going to disrupt teaching in a much greater way than the simple calculator did 50 years ago.  In particular, their currently freely available application, ChatGPT, is absolutely mind-blowing.  I highly encourage you to set up an account and interact with it - it is free and fascinating.  For the purposes of this blog, I want to share a few of the myriad capabilities of this AI.  With a single prompt, such as "Write an essay on democracy," a complete essay appears on your screen in less than a minute or two.  The essay is not brilliant, but it is solid and clearly a good place to start.  But this is just the tip of the iceberg.  You can modify your prompt and ask ChatGPT to "Write a fifth grade level essay on democracy," or "Write a tenth grade level essay on democracy."  It completes this task, and while I am no expert in the writing of 5th graders, the essays differ in vocabulary usage and grammatical sophistication. It will even do it in Spanish, French, Russian, and likely many other languages. I told you - mind blowing.  

I asked it to "Write code in C++ that sorts input into prime and non-prime numbers."  It did so as quickly as it could print on the screen, and the code works perfectly.  From chemistry, "How do you calculate molality?” – again, it produced an excellent answer with an example and why it is important.  I think you begin to see the incredible possibilities for learners.  Again, I highly encourage you to engage with ChatGPT.  But be careful, because before you know it you will have gone down a rabbit hole and spent hours finding out what it can do.  To this, I plead guilty.

So now educators find themselves at a crossroads.  Do we forbid the use of this technology because it will be our generation's intellectual downfall as was preached by my high school teachers?   Or do we embrace the inevitability of artificial intelligence and focus on how to help our students utilize it as a tool in the same manner as we did a calculator over the past several decades.  There is sure to be a lot of debate on the pros and cons of incorporating AI applications into the curriculum.  Ultimately, I believe like with the calculator, the focus on imagination and innovation will again move to the forefront, but how that happens is going to be spellbinding.  Hang on because it should be a wild, wild ride.

"...And I feel fine."  R.E.M.