Recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) are revolutionary. A platform currently in the beta testing phase, ChatGPT, has demonstrated the ability to write at the college level and beyond. Having reviewed some of the results, the essays are high quality, written with style, precision, nuance, and logic. In other words, the bot exhibits the writing skill that most people struggle to master in high school and college and throughout their working lives. As one critic declared, it will be “The End of High School English.”
AI has made a lot of promises over the years, but, like virtual reality, it has always seemed to fall short. Anyone who has dealt with a virtual assistant or an endless phone tree knows how frustrating and mechanical AI 1.0 proved to be. The spark of imagination, spontaneity, and uniqueness inherent in actual people has always had an edge. But ChatGPT seems different on its face.
As this technology is perfected, AI writing may render most of the English composition curriculum and other writing skills irrelevant. Like penmanship being displaced by word processors, and memorization by books or databases, writing itself may soon be seen as an archaic novelty.
We have seen this progression in other areas. The development of writing itself likely did a lot to reduce human working memory and rewire minds, collectively and individually. The great oral traditions died out forever when they were not reduced to words. AI writing will go further. It will not merely accelerate a process, but eliminate most of it altogether. AI writing promises to make us all look smart, but likely will make us dumber.
Consider some recent examples: The internet and algorithm-fueled search engines have conspired to reduce general knowledge. Everyone just “Googles it.” This may seem just as good as remembering something—better even, as the results are precise—but without some background and working knowledge inside one’s mind, it is hard to see connections in real time and solve problems; it is difficult to think critically about the results of a search. This is why outlandish and contradictory conspiracy theories proliferate on both extremes of the political spectrum; a lot of people mistake their own passion coupled with plausibility for proof.
Actual knowledge and learned skills are not merely additions to an existing mental architecture, but rather they form that architecture. Reading books, thinking, solving problems, and learning change the brain; these activities do not merely add to an existing and fully formed structure. Conversely, certain technologies ensure that these skills and these connections are never formed.
Writing in particular is intimately tied with thinking. It is distinct from speaking because it is more deliberate, requires organization, as well as skill in spelling, punctuation, grammar. It uses different parts of the brain than speaking. The writing process itself is slow, and this slowness contributes to precision and rigor.
This is why it is much easier to read than to write, just as it is much easier to do regular math problems than the infamous word problems. The latter of each category requires the synthesis and analysis of other information, as well as its conversion into something useful. In other words, writing and other complex tasks test if someone actually understands something, rather than the less useful ability to simulate thinking by copying a process.
Critics will respond that the same could be said of these other innovations, whether it is the written word, calculators, or Wikipedia. Well, it is not so clear critics were not correct in those cases, at least partially. In each example, something once more common as a human ability became less common or died out altogether. But in the case of written words or books, whatever was gained far exceeded what was lost.
By contrast, more recent arrivals like television and the internet have been more of a mixed bag. Comparing 19th century writing and literature with television since its inception, we observe a fairly profound devolution in complexity and sophistication. The internet has only further accelerated the decline in reading books generally. Young people have gone from reading blogs to 280 character tweets and now to endless video loops on TikTok.
For all of its vaunted benefits to the economy, anyone who has been in an office environment in the last 20 years knows how much time is wasted playing games or shopping or dealing with personal affairs on the internet. Similarly, anyone who has dealt with younger people knows how increasingly difficult it is for them to focus, the dark side of being “digital natives.”
The inability to focus leads to an inability to perform complex tasks or, more generally, to think. Constant stimulation, the dopamine-cycle of sites like TikTok and Facebook, are designed to exploit addictive processes in the brain. But, other than making revenue for the software companies, it is not so clear how any of this benefits the common good.
Unlike calculators or spellcheck, an AI that can write entire essays promises something profound and also profoundly dangerous. It does not merely take up the rote parts of the process to permit a greater focus on problem-solving and creativity; it takes up the entire process. People unused to writing will soon be unused to thinking, especially deep thinking. Eventually, they will become completely insensitive to gradations in the quality of the AI product, having never acquired the critical skill in writing and thinking by doing things the “old fashioned” way.
As a species and a civilization, we like to think we are smart. Collectively, we all use and benefit from applied knowledge and technology. This includes everything from cars and phones to medicine and computers. But these technologies are the crystalized work of geniuses. It takes a lot more brains to design a smartphone than to operate one.
Indeed, part of the genius behind much of modern technology is that it allows people of extremely modest intellectual gifts to thrive by easily (and unknowingly) leveraging the knowledge and skills of others. But the passive use of barely understood technology is more akin to magic than science.
Teachers and schools will likely employ countermeasures to AI writing with modest success. But as the technology is embraced by old and young alike—everyone likes to appear smart and imagine their children to be such—it will mean we are less in control than ever of those things that make us human: our thoughts and our words.