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ChatGPT: A Toy? A Tool? A Threat? Or Something Else?

Miriam Reichenberg, tbh Producer
Miriam Reichenberg
Miriam Reichenberg, tbh Producer
"You can't limit ChatGPT. It's out there."
Helen Crompton

Berkeley High school junior, Miriam Reichenberg, is thinking a lot about how students are engaging with ChatGPT and also returning to older forms of technology in hopes of sparking their creativity. In this episode of tbh, we hear what Gen Z thanks about the future of AI.

Story Transcript

ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence chatbot that generates text...and it’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. The technology can produce just about anything when given prompts. It can come up with an original recipe, create a poem for your special someone, and write an essay for your English class that you may have put off until the last minute.

Since making its debut, there’s been a never-ending stream of reports, opinions, and thoughts on the new technology, especially in relation to how it should, or shouldn’t, be used in the classroom.

But very little of this reporting addresses the perspectives of teens. As ChatGPT becomes more pervasive, my peers and I will be affected in ways we can’t even begin to imagine.

Zoe Graham: And it really does feel like every day we're stepping closer to like, you know, The Matrix or any of those technological dystopias.

Zoe Graham, who happens to be my cousin, graduated this year from Skyline High School in Oakland. She was just a little freaked out when she first used the AI chatbot.

Zoe Graham: It felt weird to be reading something that sounded like it had a personality and it was like its own character, but it wasn't a person. You know, it's just a language model, like it's just copying what it's read online.

And so I started to wonder about how young people are using this new technology, and how educators are approaching it.

Is ChatGPT a useful tool in the classroom, something to play around with, or should we stay away from it?

These questions will become crucial as we enter our last couple years of high school, apply to college, and join the workforce.

Around February this year…I started hearing mumblings and rumors about students who were playing around with ChatGPT for their schoolwork.

Then one class period, my economics teacher spent the whole 58 minutes explaining how the use of ChatGPT was not acceptable… how he would check for AI use… how there would be major consequences.

Connor Levi Lang:

Like you can't just say ChatGPT, write me an essay, if you're going to do that. Not that it’s, not saying I've done it before, but if you're going to do that, you need to edit it a lot.

That’s my friend Connor Levi Lang, the most avid ChatGPT user I know.

Connor Levi Lang: You can't just turn in the finished product because it's going to have a lot of inconsistencies and flaws.

Connor also goes to Berkeley High, and says his computer science teacher actually had him use ChatGPT for a project. But he mainly uses it for fun.

I asked him to open up the ChatGPT app. It was a little overwhelming. You’ll see what I mean. He’s asked it…

Connor Levi Lang: What would happen if you inhale hydrogen gas and blew it out and you had a lighter in front of your face and if you could breathe fire or not.

…About Micheal Jackson’s nose jobs… about skyr yogurt… about how he could improve his SAT score.

Connor Levi Lang: And then I tried to. What did I do? Oh, a post 2021 world summary to see if it knew anything about post 2021. This is all within the previous seven days

…In just seven days!

I’d been made to think that using ChatGPT for schoolwork, or even just to mess around with, was a form of plagiarism, or something illicit, something we haven’t quite named.

Connor Levi Lang: Have I used it to help with an assignment? Yes. Have I used it to fully write my essay? No.

He explained in typical Connor fashion that using ChatGPT in the classroom isn’t cheating, it’s just more of a creative workaround.

Connor Levi Lang: You'll use it how you're going to use it, and maybe you get caught cheating on your assignment, Right? And maybe you don't. You know, it's just like it's there and you can use it. You can not use it

ChatGPT was first introduced to the public in November 2022.

GPT stands for generative pre-trained transformer. Basically, that means that ChatGPT produces text, using the information it’s been trained with online. None of this is new… except that this tool transforms what it's learned into a personalized response.

It’s built like the brain, a bunch of neural networks processing data quickly, predicting the next most likely word in response to a prompt.

I first found it mind blowing when I learned that that is all ChatGPT is capable of doing– predicting the next word. Sure, it’s fascinating, but also a little bit scary. ChatGPT is artificial intelligence, it’s definitely not human.

Helen Crompton: You can't limit ChatGPT. It's out there.

But Helen Crompton…a professor of technology at Old Dominion University in Virginia….says schools are trying. School districts in Seattle, New York, and Los Angeles have policies banning ChatGPT.

Helen Crompton: It's like water. It can't be collected back and put into a little bowl. It's splashed everywhere

Crompton specializes in studying the intersection between AI and education, and is also frequently consulted by organizations concerned about AI use, such as the United Nations.

Helen Crompton: With the media there’s been a very negative spin often on Chat GPT. And that's a shame because students feel embarrassed to use it, and they shouldn't be, they just need to make sure like any tool that they're using it for the right things, not the wrong things.

She hit the nail on the head. I was ashamed to even think about using Chat GPT for schoolwork… but Crompton argues that AI can be a good thing…if we harness it correctly. She says we shouldn’t shy away from using it in the classroom.

Helen Crompton: We've always been worried about things like you said, about the newspapers, the Internet. Gosh, when the Internet was out, you know, students, we could forget about schools. Schools were going to die.

Almost everyone with access to the internet, from students and teachers, to dog walkers and chefs, can use this tool. ChatGPT, then, can be an equalizer, if we use it with intention.

Helen Crompton: It's just made schools better where students can get information, people all over the world. In fact, all of these things are actually called democratizing education, democratizing knowledge in that you don't have to be rich, you don't have to be powerful, you don't have to have amazing computer science skills to be able to get information. We're all kind of, it's leveling the playing field in many ways

I called up an English teacher at Berkeley High who is adapting some of her lesson plans with ChatGPT in mind. She uses it to generate sample questions and cater material to students’ interests…a very different approach than the one my economics teacher took.

When I started doing research for this piece, my friend Rebecca Birenbaum and I decided it was time to finally play around with ChatGPT.

I downloaded the app on my phone. We were late to the game– the app was downloaded over five hundred thousand times in just the first six days of its release.

We’d both been hesitant to use it, maybe because we didn’t fully understand how this new technology worked or the ways we could best use it… it felt overwhelming.

MIRIAM: You can be rude to it also, it’s a robot.

REBECCA: That’s true.

Rebecca is a visual artist, so she typed in this…

Rebecca: My question is how do you feel about AI platforms stealing artists' work to create generated art.

Miriam: Go ahead, type that in… it’s super weird having a conversation with it.

Rebecca: Yeah, I’ve never done this before.

And then… ChatGPT had a response!

Rebecca Birenbaum: It’s pretty long. It says as an AI bot I don’t possess personal feelings or emotions but… the use of AI platforms to generate digital art raises ethical questions regarding intellectual property and artistic integrity.

Rebecca has told me she feels like she should stay away from ChatGPT because it might take away from her creativity.

Rebecca Birenbaum: It makes me feel like there’s not really a point in me doing my own work at this time because if I could ask a robot to just do it for me, then it’s like my own work isn’t valued, or I know that I could get a better grade using AI. So what's really the point of me putting in my own effort?

It’s funny though, I’m actually noticing that many of my friends have taken on more old-school, analogue activities. Maybe ChatGPT and all the other digital technologies we’re bombarded with daily are bringing out a creativity resurgence, even a mild rebellion! I mean, records are back and film cameras are cool again. Even the orienteering club at my high school, where kids navigate various courses and terrains, uses paper maps and compasses!

And look, there will always be those who avoid these new technologies. For example, there’s the Luddite Club, a group of teens in New York, who’ve taken it so far as to limit and even avoid the use of smartphones, social media and the internet in general. But is avoidance really the answer?

Zoe Graham: This is our future. AI is not going away.

My cousin Zoe Graham, again.

Zoe Graham: And I think the people who are going to be most successful, at least in my generation, as we head off, you know, into the workforce, are the people who can use it to their advantage and, you know, understand it the best

Zoe’s not wrong. And maybe the key is that, as young people, we should learn how best to use the tool to suit our individual needs.

AI bots, like ChatGPT, are a wholly different type of technology because they give a false sense that we’re actually communicating with something sentient. At first, with all of the warnings from teachers and alarmist news stories, ChatGPT seemed like this big threat to our educational systems and creativity.

But now I’m thinking that we just need to understand the implications of using it. And as a high school student, it will probably prove useful…every now and again. So I think I will use ChatGPT in the future, and that doesn’t mean I’ll lose any of my natural curiosity or creativity.

One morning, Zoe and I were talking, sitting with my computer between us on my bedroom floor. We had just gotten back from a walk. Zoe pulled up ChatGPT and asked it a question.

Zoe Graham: What is the future of A.I.? It's thinking. Oh! Ah, it's thinking, oh, it's writing a lot. The future of A.I. holds tremendous potential and is likely to have a significant impact on various aspects of our lives

Whatever the future of AI, I’m feeling less uneasy with ChatGPT now that I understand that it isn’t going to take over our classrooms and our minds… or limit our creativity.

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