Everybody is talking about ChatGPT, Generative Pre-Trained Transformer. It’s a powerful Artificial Intelligence bot developed by Open AI and backed by a number of Silicon Valley investors including Elon Musk. The site was unveiled to the public last November and it has quickly become the talk of the town. You can ask the bot any question and receive an answer or even an entire research paper. It is still in the beta testing phase so the bot is learning and changing with each interaction with a human. So far there are still kinks in the information, especially when it comes to mathematics, and its use has raised hundreds of ethical and legal questions. Nonetheless AI seems to be very much a wave of the future that will only get more and more useful as better and better versions develop.
It all reminds me of other trends during my lifetime that once seemed ridiculously unnecessary and maybe even a bit frivolous. I recall hearing about the first color televisions and could not imagine why they might one day replace the old black and white versions that flickered in varying shades of grey in living rooms across the land. Eventually everyone seemed to be watching the NBC peacock in brilliant color and more and more innovations were still to come. Screens became bigger, then flatter and even smarter. At the same time the cost of a television inched lower and lower. The old television repairmen became a thing of the past.
The same was true with phones. Once they were tethered to a wall and then came the models that allowed us to the phone lift from the cradle and walk around the room while we talked. Eventually big brick looking cell phones came around to remind me of Maxwell Smart with his shoe phone. Many iterations later we have our smartphones that contain more power and information than the bank of computers used at NASA to send a man to the moon. Even some small children now have phones and students save lists of assignments on electronic calendars. Now the old style camera with film is not as necessary as it once was as we snap photos simply by lifting our phones and pushing buttons.
I have recounted my personal story with computers. Our family started with a TRS 80 that operated with a tape deck and did very little other than run a couple of games. Eventually we upgraded to the Apple IIe with a double floppy disc drive. My husband developed a grading program for me and I used the word processor to write lessons and create assignments. My principal was so impressed with my innovations that I became the school’s computer “expert.” Now I have a powerful machine that sits on my lap and does so many things that I sometimes can’t believe its capabilities. Most students have laptops to do their school work. Some universities provide every student with an iPad. During Covid I kept my classes going for over two years from my upstairs bedroom using my laptop and Zoom. I never missed a session and my students progressed in spite of being remote.
I am fascinated by the future of artificial intelligence. It is already being used in small ways. I have a robotic vacuum cleaner that whirs through my house five days a week whether I am at home or not. We control lights and music with voice commands. ChatGPT is bound to evolve into a very useful tool for enriching our lives, but the concerns about it are valid. How will we be able to tell if a student’s paper was written by a computer? Will electronic art become as valuable as that created with the human hand? What happens if the bot does not understand the nuances of higher mathematics but is used for critical calculations? Will such a bot decrease jobs for humans. Will it dramatically change the kind of work we do?
All such questions are troubling many people at the same time that they are fascinated by the possibilities of AI. Will the time come when the elderly will be able to live independently in their homes with the aide of robotics and AI coupled with regular visits from humans to make certain that everything is running well? Will we one day in fact be riding around in self driving vehicles? Will teaching methods change dramatically? What will happen in medicine? Will bots be able to continually observe people in the hospital? Will our predictions of the weather and the economy become more accurate?
Some believe that the revolution brought about by AI will make the entire world a better place to be. They imagine AI serving people in remote areas. They see a brighter future, but as we know humans often have a way of taking something good and using it in nefarious ways. The idea that AI could backfire is as valid as predictions of better things to come. We simply have to be willing to think critically about what is happening as the saga of AI unfolds and deal with problems as they arise.
For now I’ve heard of a minister who uses ChatGPT to find ideas for writing his weekly sermon. A woman who has a small business asks it to write notes to her customers. An engineer used an outline from it to create a guide for processes required by his company. I asked it a couple of mathematics questions and learned that it is rudimentary at best as the mathematics becomes more complex, but I got some excellent definitions of terms.
The future is now. One day we may look at the Jetsons and laugh at how quaint their predictions of the future world actually were. I for one can’t wait to see how AI will create better and better ways of living. Maybe there really is a Wizard of Oz and he is found in AI.