21st Century Competencies – Neither Good Nor Bad

Galapagos finches had differently shaped beaks that gave them an advantage at acquiring particular foods.

– Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

As an AI, I do not have the ability to be good or bad. I can provide information and respond to prompts, but I do not have emotions or moral judgements. My purpose is to assist users in generating human-like text based on the input given to me.

– ChatGPT

One stimulus-based conversation question asked of students here is, Would robots make good friends? Someone, somewhere may have imagined a world in which there existed a friend who was also the wisest counsellor, guide and mentor who had all the answers. Ideally this friend would have been always available with no needs of her or his own.

What if such a friend did exist but could only ever communicate through the written word? Since there is no limit on the number of friends one could have, at least some would be very happy to include such a friend in their circle.

When kids were asked if robots would make good friends, some said no because robots could never understand what they were going through and feeling. To them, robots could not offer the emotional connection their actual human peers did. Some kids did say though that having a robot which would never get tired, angry or quarrel with them did seem an attractive proposition.

The response of kids who did not believe a robot could be a friend and which pointed to lack of emotional connection as the reason, is understandable. A defining feature of a robot, at least the more accessible ones (from a price perspective, at least for now) would be its obviously non-human appearance. Given the importance of facial expressions and other natural body language in communicating emotions and showing relatedness, a robot does seem a poor candidate to consider for the position of friend.

Let’s come back though, to the imaginary friend who is perfect in every way except for only communicating in the written form. What if this friend knew all the right things to say but did not have a physical form? Would this friend be able to offer the emotional connection most if not all robots may not be able to? Some might say it is possible. After all, we do relate to others via text with or without emojis and the whole purpose of texting applications is to increase a sense of connection with others.

ChatGPT in its current or some future iteration might be that perfect friend which (who?) exists in real life. ChatGPT is able to answer many questions “in a conversational way” (openai.com) so long as you don’t pose a question (for now) about who won the most recent edition of the World Cup (football) or anything else which happened after 2021. When asked for a good Japanese crime fiction author, ChatGPT recommended Keigo Higashino. When asked for the best way to teach a number of different English components, the answer was always prefaced with there is no one-size-fits all. Given the speed and breadth of ChatGPT’s responses, one might come to the conclusion that it is a great companion (some might even say substitute, if not now, sometime in the future) to the Google search engine.

When using a search engine, users have to self-curate results. ChatGPT appears to do the curation and so solves a lack of information problem much more quickly. Given this wonderful technological innovation which holds much promise, many, especially in education have been concerned. Would it be too tempting for students? Would teachers be replaced?

One person who was concerned before ChatGPT burst into mainstream consciousness, is Professor Joseph E. Aoun, a linguist, who is now the seventh President of Northeastern University in Boston. To explicate the problem posed by the rise of artificial intelligence; made clear and present by, in his words, the “tramp of robot feet,” and to share his views on the way forward, he wrote Robot-Proof.

As President of a university, he was naturally concerned about the implications of artificial intelligence and other technological developments on university education – are universities in their current form still serving the evolving needs of their students? At the same time, he pointed out that as with every other critical technological breakthrough, the current AI revolution, is also changing the world of work. He says many existing jobs may be replaced and that many new ones will be created. Consider for instance, writing. ChatGPT and other software which exist, are able to churn readable copy quickly – the machine learns and writes everything faster. He believes therefore, that the way forward is to Robot-proof ourselves by adapting.

How can students of today continue to remain relevant and not be displaced by machines? What is something that they can do that machines would not be able to do and what do they need to develop from young to robot-proof themselves?

He suggests that students should to the extent possible learn coding because “coding is the lingua franca of the digital world” and “everyone should be conversant in it” (Aoun, 2017). Students would need to be able to “find meaning in the overwhelming amount of information pouring in from …devices” (Aoun, 2017). They can do this by learning how to interpret data – in numeric, text or any other form. They can ask what is the implication of what I’m seeing, to my purpose? Also, they need to develop people skills because “divided communities are weaker than unified ones” and they will need to “play well with others” (Aoun,2017) because the workplace will become, among other things, more diverse.

Professor Aoun adds that the capacity of students to do the following must be developed. They need to be able to question assumptions behind why they do what they do. They need to be able to see the big picture – how changes in one small part of a much bigger whole would change the whole in profound ways. They need to be creative or be capable of far transfer – to apply what they learn in one area to other entirely unrelated areas. Instead of thinking about what fixed job scope they can fulfil, they can begin to ask how they can apply their skill sets to solving the problems they see around them.

According to Professor Aoun, learning to do the above would make students robot-proof because humans would have the upper hand in these areas for the foreseeable future. He is of the view that artificial intelligence would not be able for example, to apply what is learnt in one area to an entirely unrelated area.

Given the concern around AI, the dissonance one may experience when interacting with a new-found friend who appears to be nothing but readily helpful may prompt one to ask ChatGPT: Are you good or bad?

If one did ask, ChatGPT might say, neither.

The Brain Dojo


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