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Ogren: Outsourcing thought to AI bots

AI is coming to education and the workforce, bringing the ability to outsource intellectual labor.
Image by Mary Ellen Ritter

In a March open letter from the Future of Life Institute, more than 1,500 tech leaders expressed their concerns about the pace of AI development, calling for increased regulation of this breakthrough technology.

The letter suggested a six-month pause on AI development to allow regulations to be implemented — a pause that would allow us to think critically about the future of AI and its implications, both positive and negative.

If it happens, this will be an important period for thinkers both in and outside of the tech community to have real, open discourse about potential uses and developments in AI, and what safeguards will need to be put in place.

The writing of an open letter suggests these tech leaders want to include broad input in future decisions about AI. This in itself is a huge positive, as tech leaders are seeking transparency between themselves and the public.

One major issue to consider with the AI boom is how to preserve the development of critical thinking skills in future generations as more and more intellectual labor is outsourced to AI programs.

While AI may not surpass human abilities, it is possible intellectual outsourcing may cause human skills to deteriorate below the benchmark.

AI has already begun to spread to educational tasks like essay writing and workforce tasks like document preparation. While outsourcing menial tasks to AI may contribute to better efficiency and productivity, it may also have negative side effects on our critical thinking skills over time.

Critical thinking skills are hard to develop but are absolutely crucial for human intelligence. One of the most common ways students are asked to practice and showcase these skills is essay writing. If this task is outsourced to AI programs and these generated essays are able to achieve satisfactory or exemplary grades, then the student may skip most opportunities to develop critical thinking skills.

Now, students can and definitely should review their AI-generated essays for accuracy and make sure they understand what their essay is arguing, but critique is a far cry from full-form critical thinking.

And critique will be necessary to weed out the misinformation that AI can produce. AI platforms have a tendency to generate misinformation, as Sandra Wachter, an expert in technology information at Oxford University, told Science.

She also pointed out the six-month pause is fairly arbitrary and is unlikely to be a complete solution, and these questions need to be decided among people beyond just the tech community.

So far, the Biden administration has put out an AI “Bill of Rights” to try to regulate AI platforms, but the principles are voluntary.

From the regulatory end, the story is far from over. We will have to wait and see how it pans out, and speak our concerns to help shape the developments. We also must act now to prevent the critical thinking deficits that may arise in students from missed learning opportunities.

It may be unpopular, but in-person, real-time written or oral exams need to be regularly used in classrooms. These put a lot of stress on students, but it is absolutely essential that students learn to generate their own thoughts and communicate them effectively. With the growing popularity of AI, stepping away from evaluations that are easily completed with AI support may be the only feasible and affordable way to ensure our students develop these crucial skills.

Schools are already struggling. Declines can be seen in many aspects in schools, from skills to graduation rates. At least a large part of this is likely due to declines in available funds, which affects some schools more than others. If schools were able to enjoy some of the cash flow and developer interest AI platforms are currently enjoying, school outcomes might turn around.

AI can be a wonderful tool, but we need to be very picky about what it can and cannot be used for in terms of outsourcing intellectual labor. We need to preserve the ability of human beings to think critically because that may be the only way we can continue to outsmart machines.

We cannot let ourselves fall behind while technology charges ahead.

Would you like Allison to follow up on this topic or explore something specific? Contact her at [email protected] with questions, comments or story ideas.

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