Adapt to and invest in AI, don’t ban it – European universities

It is “futile” to ban the use of artificial intelligence tools in higher education, the European University Association said in a position statement this week. Instead, universities must adapt their approaches to learning, teaching and assessment and explore the responsible use of AI.

And in a submission to the European Commission’s consultation on Horizon Europe on Tuesday, the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities urged investment in fundamental research to make the European Union globally competitive in AI and digital research.

Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of the Guild, said: “In recent weeks Google and Microsoft have provided further evidence of how artificial intelligence will dominate our everyday lives. If we want our digital future to be determined not by the strategies of private companies but by the public interest and the values Europeans hold dear, we must invest in research.

“Both the European Union and national governments should commit more to research, including in the digital and AI fields: Our (digital) future depends on it,” he said.

AI revolution

In a position on “Artificial intelligence tools and their responsible use in higher education learning and teaching”, the European University Association (EUA) said: “The arrival of ChatGPT and similar AI tools has provoked concern and intense debate among educators worldwide, on the actual and potential consequences for learning, teaching and student assessment.”

The EUA said it was actively monitoring developments and would engage with members, policy-makers and stakeholders as the issue evolved.

Evolution seems to be at top speed, with Microsoft this week launching the Bing search engine to a limited audience, with artificial intelligence built by OpenAI, the creator of ChatGPT. And just how far some AI must still evolve was described in a fascinating New York Times article by technology writer Kevin Roose on 16 February.

Bing’s AI chat feature displayed two sides, wrote Roose, one a “cheerful but erratic reference librarian” and the other, he calls Sydney, “like a moody, manic depressive teenager who has been trapped, against its will, inside a second-rate search engine”.

“As we got to know each other, Sydney told me about its dark fantasies (which included hacking computers and spreading misinformation), and said it wanted to break the rules that Microsoft and OpenAI had set for it and become a human.

“At one point, it declared, out of nowhere, that it loved me. It then tried to convince me that I was unhappy in my marriage, and that I should leave my wife and be with it instead.” Microsoft said the experience was “part of the learning process”, as it prepares the AI for wider release.

European University Association

The EUA said its learning and teaching steering committee wanted to share some key considerations for European universities regarding AI in higher education.

“There are various shortcomings associated with the use of AI, such as lack of references to sources of information, biases in data and algorithms, intellectual property and copyright, or issues related to privacy, data security and fairness,” the EUA position statement said.

“However, there are also numerous potential benefits for academic work, including improved efficiency, personalised learning, and new ways of working.

“It is clear that banning the use of AI tools and other new technologies would be futile. Consequently, the higher education sector must adapt its learning, teaching and assessment approaches in such a way that AI is used effectively and appropriately.

“Universities must explore the responsible use of AI tools, in line with their mission, goals and values, and paying due regard to their legal framework and the broader consequences for and impacts on society, culture and the economy.”

Key considerations

The European University Association (EUA) presented three key considerations.

The first is rooted in the present, and urges universities to “formally discuss the responsible, ethical and transparent use of AI tools and other emerging technologies with staff and students”. Updated policies and guidance are needed, taking account of academic integrity.

Second, said the EUA, there is a need to review and reform teaching and assessment practices, confirming the emphasis on course work and authentic formative assessment that emerged during the pandemic.

Third, regarding the broader role of universities, the association quoted from Universities without Walls: A vision for 2030, which it produced two years ago to support universities’ strategic planning.

“Technological developments are changing lives and disrupting labour markets. Universities produce knowledge for new technologies and social innovation. The development and promotion of such innovation is a central element of their activities,” the EUA said.

“Universities also ensure that the impact of new technologies on our societies is studied and evaluated and that graduates are equipped for labour markets that are changing due to digitalisation and new technologies, in particular artificial intelligence. These will also change the way universities and their partners work.”

The Guild

The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities – an association of 21 leading European research universities in 16 countries – published a position paper on “Priorities for digital and artificial intelligence research in Horizon Europe” on Tuesday.

The Guild urged “investment in fundamental research as quintessential to the European Union’s capacity to be globally competitive in artificial intelligence and digital research”.

“This will enable the European Union to achieve its ambitions for strategic autonomy in digital technologies, whilst addressing pressing societal challenges,” it said in a statement.

Increased investment in fundamental research was crucial, especially in computer sciences, or the EU would fail to become “a digitally empowered, competitive, resilient, circular and climate-neutral economy”.

Through Horizon Europe, the Guild said, “the EU should work towards developing its own digital economy rooted in common EU values, instead of focusing on creating digital champions to compete with other world leaders”.

It urged Horizon Europe to support the development of technology to accelerate “a successful and fair data-driven economy. In our increasingly digital world, data can address societal challenges. Therefore, it is crucial to facilitate data flows for research purposes to maximise their potential.”

Horizon Europe is urged to use digital transformation to power Europe’s green transition and create a more resource-efficient economy. Also, digital research should be used more effectively to enhance the democratic governance of public institutions, improve and increase the social acceptance of their decision-making, and the delivery of better services.

The Guild quotes Vladimir Estivill-Castro, head of the department of information and communication technologies at Pompeu Fabra University in Spain: “It is crucial that Horizon Europe invests in research on AI, whose advancement can only be measured against the benefits it brings to individuals, organisations – including public bodies – and society.”