ChatGPT is a powerful language model developed by OpenAI capable of generating human-like text.
Well, that’s how ChatGPT describes itself.
Elon Musk’s company’s viral AI chatbot software, due out in late 2022, can write anything you want — true or false. Give it a prompt like “write an article about ChatGPT for Vice” and it will do it. Click “Regenerate Response” and it will make you a different version. Let it write in a light-hearted or academic tone and you’ll have it in seconds. When I asked it for a story idea for VICE, it spouted: The Dark Underworld of Underground Lizard Wars. Honestly, it sounds good.
While chatbot technology has existed in various forms for years, ChatGPT is by far the most advanced of its kind, and unsurprisingly, its popularity is growing rapidly. Especially among students.
Sally Brandon, a communications lecturer at Melbourne’s Deakin University, applied robotic detection to 54 papers she flagged over the summer and found 10 had “significant, detectable robot assistance”. For five years, she’s been scanning assessments for signs of artificial intelligence, and the term’s use is by far the highest.
In the US, some schools have “banned” the URL to allay concerns about negative impacts on students. ChatGPT quickly became synonymous with “cheating”.
Use ChatGPT to write an essay on the prescribed text instead of reading it yourself, as if basing your assignment on the summary and conclusion of the source material only. It will get you so far, but it probably won’t get you a high score.
In Australia, Brandon’s results have raised concerns about academic integrity and how to maintain fair student assessment in the presence of this technology.
But computer science experts, and even the universities themselves, say the technology is just the beginning of a new era of learning.
Philip Dawson, co-director of the Center for Assessment and Digital Learning Research at Deakin University, told VICE: “I think this is a moment of human empowerment that we’re focusing on right now.”
“I think students graduating in five years’ time will be able to do a lot more than we can do now because they’re going to use these tools.”
Dawson described ChatGPT as a writing tool, and compared students using it to help them write essays to pilots learning how to fly modern aircraft.
“Yes, you need to be able to use all the instruments, and you need to know how all those instruments work, but you also need to be able to do that when all those instruments fail. You still need to be able to land that plane.”
ChatGPT was developed on a larger dataset than any competitor. It works by looking at patterns in text from around the world, including books, articles and web pages, and learning which words are most likely to appear together.
But it’s not a database: it creates new prose because it’s just looking for learned features. It only learns from what it’s taught, so it can still make mistakes, have gaps in its knowledge and have built-in biases.
“What we’re trying to do is tell students ‘we know these tools exist, but when you use them, here’s how you acknowledge that you’ve used them’.”
Dr Cheryl Pope, a senior lecturer in the School of Computing and Mathematical Sciences at the University of Adelaide, said ChatGPT was great for writing first drafts, but the need for human editing and fact-checking was unlikely to be replaced anytime soon.
“There’s still a need to understand the topic so you can critique the answers it generates,” Pope told VICE.
“You still have to scrutinize, verify, emphasize tone, all of those things that you still want a person to do … but it gives you a good starting point.”
Instead of reading it yourself, use ChatGPT to write an essay on the prescribed text, Pope said, as if your assignment were simply a summary and conclusion based on your source material. It will get you so far, but it probably won’t get you a high score.
But once you start thinking of chatbots as a tool rather than a replacement, the possibilities become really exciting.
“It’s not a matter of banning it, it’s out there, it exists, we’re going to use it in the future, but it’s going to be a tool for efficiency,” Pope said.
Chatbot software also has the potential to make higher education more accessible to those who may struggle with traditional assessment methods or who must balance other commitments outside of school, and give students 24/7 access to learning assistance.
“It takes a lot of social capital to get help. You have to be close to someone, and it can be uncomfortable. There’s one person you can ask any question, [with] Don’t worry about other people seeing it, whether it’s a stupid question, I think there’s a lot of scope there,” Pope said.
On the other hand, the technology may usher in higher standards, just as expectations differ between the two-hour written test and the exam. You have two months to write an article.
“If you have an AI as a mentor, we might want you to go deeper,” Pope said.
Deakin University’s vice-chancellor, Professor Liz Johnson, told VICE they had been called to bring back traditional exams in light of ChatGPT’s recent rise. But she said they would embrace the technology in a cautious manner.
“Universities do not believe traditional paper-and-pencil exams are representative of the environments and types of jobs graduates will work in. In fact, many students may need to use artificial intelligence or similar technologies in their future careers,” Johnson said.
“As innovative and proactive educators, our focus is to support our students in developing awareness, knowledge and skills in the ethical and responsible use of these tools so that they graduate as digitally fluent citizens and employees.”
Dawson said universities have been aware that students have been using these tools for some time — because professionals in their industries have, too. Now, just as the education sector has had to adapt to the World Wide Web, teachers need to figure out how to incorporate chatbots into learning.
“What we’re trying to do is tell students ‘we know these tools exist, but when you use them, here’s how you acknowledge that you’ve used them,'” Dawson said.
At the end of the day, people will always find a way to cheat – using whatever technology is available to them.
We’ve been cheating since the first form of testing was invented in China in AD 600, and we’ve been trying to find ways to get rid of it.
All the university can do is keep up.
Aleksandra Bliszczyk is a senior reporter for VICE Australia.You can follow her on Instagram or Twitter Gentlemen.