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  • stephencurro

Grab Your Torches...

If it's one app that has revolutionized the world, it's TikTok.

The concept is simple: record a brief video and upload it for others to see. Swipe through the videos to find, like, and comment on the videos you enjoy. It's like YouTube, but more concentrated, more mobile, and dare I say more liberated in content.

TikTok has no shortage of controversy. It's the latest social media app, giving kids yet another reason to look at screens instead of talk to each other physically. The swipe of the videos has been linked to endorphin spikes, not unlike the usage of drugs. And, there have been accusations that China may or may not be using the software to spy on Americans.

I'm concerned about all of those things. Hell, I'm growing increasingly fed up with social media in general. What should have been a fun way to share information and chat with others has turned into a politically toxic nightmare, and a poor substitute for real human companionship. Frankly, if all social media were to vanish overnight, I wouldn't lose sleep over it at all...

But if we're going to actively root out technology we consider to be dangerous, I don't think TikTok is the right target. For all its flaws, many businesses depend on it for their operations . It's also become a fantastic way for people to share their knowledge whether it's baking or construction or what have you (like the internet was meant for!) . And, it's become a lightning rod for all manner of causes, giving people a chance to mobilize and have a say on issues that matter to them.

The US government is toying with banning TikTok altogether. Despite my misgivings, I think this is a mistake. If there's a digital monster we need to rally torches and pitchforks over, it's AI. Specifically, ChatGPT.

Unlike TikTok, ChatGPT is an AI software that automatically writes an essay about whatever you want. All it needs is a few parameters. "Write an essay about how the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor" and BOOM, you have an instant article with clear sentences, coherent explanations, and punctuation perfectly placed. The text is so good that you literally might not be able to tell that a computer wrote it.

Unsurprisingly, many high school and college students have pounced on this like a wolf on a mouse. This tech allows people to get around all manner of writing assignments with flying colors. Many schools have rightfully attempted to ban it, but students find ways to circumvent school firewals. What's more, ChatGPT essays don't show up in plagiarism filters. Just get the paper to class and you've got yourself a grade.

As an educator and a writer, I find this offensive and horrifying. THIS is the slippery slope we should be worrying about. Why? There are several reasons...

First, it doesn't teach kids anything about the content at hand. The only skills they are using is basic sentence structure to tell a computer what they want. Writing essays demonstrates what you know about a topic. Using ChatGPT doesn't demonstrate anything other than laziness.

Second, indulging ChatGPT deprives kids of practicing real critical thinking skills. In life, whether in written or spoken form, children will be required to stand up for themselves, defend their values, provide evidence for their arguments. You can't just have a computer speak for you every step of the way; you must be able to use reasoning to function in society.

Third, it teaches kids that it's okay to cheat. Don't kid yourself, you didn't write the paper. The computer did. You're essentially asking for a grade you didn't really earn.

Some say this program should be embraced in the classroom. How? If we're going to accept AI essays as "correct", why not throw all the rules out? Why not let athletes use steroids, or allow singers to use autotune in singing competitions? Let's let bikers ride motorcycles in the Tour de France, while we're at it.

ChatGPT is only the beginning. Bing and other companies are figuring out how to have their own high-tech AI programs. At the rate we're going, I don't think it's unreasonable to say we could have a bonafide self-aware AI program in the near future...and then what? Being the sci-fi nerd I am, movies and TV shows like The Terminator, The Matrix, iRobot, Battlestar Galactica and The Orville all come to mind. We've heard this story before, and it starts out glamorous but always ends in nuclear fire...

...or does it? We certainly could have a SkyNet situation one day, but if ChatGPT is any indicator, the events of WALL-E are even more likely to occur. WALL-E explores what happens when AI takes over everything. Humans are allowed to recline and engage in glorious pleasure...but they don't really live. They gain tremendous weight as they sit all day on hover chairs doing nothing but eating and playing games. All of this is maintained by a meticulous computer system who will stop at nothing to stay in control. As T.S. Elliot wrote, "This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper".

But even this should be a secondary concern. What should be enough to stop all development on AI right now is the fact that it's stealing our skills. Drop the average 21st century human in the rainforest, and that person has a marginal chance of survival at best. Most of us lost the skills we need to survive over the eons (including me, I wouldn't last five minutes in the wilderness!) Granted, many of those skills were suplanted by other necessary skills. We don't need a fire because we learned how to make a heater. But how many of us know how to build a heater today, and how many will when machines build it all in the future? What happens when the power goes out and we're all freezing? Now apply this to writing, literacy, thinking. Letting flashy technology do the heavy lifting for our brains makes us more vulnerable to disinformation and less able to communicate. It stifles creativity, hampers innovation, turns us into zombies, and invites the potential for unprecedented chaos.

I don't want to sound like one of those ridiculous luddites who stands in the way of progress...but sometimes progress goes in the wrong direction. Perhaps AI can be a useful tool if it is given severe restrictions, and if everyone agrees that it cannot totally replace what humans do to be human. If ChatGPT isn't banned, it at least needs to recored every essay it writes so teachers can catch students who are tempted to take the easy way out.

TikTok has issues that need to be addressed, but least that program is managed by humans, for humans. As it should be.

Alas, I have no major updates in my writing this time. But thank you for listening, and I wherever you are, I hope you are safe and well.

Until next time!

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