Leading academics believe fears over ChatGPT are misplaced

“AI will not replace people – but the person using AI might replace you,” says Pieter Geldenhuys, futurist and director of the Institute for Technology, Strategy and Innovation. He has teamed up with North-West University in South Africa to run a course to upskill people in new artificial intelligence (AI) technology.

Since its release in November 2022 by the American company OpenAI, and amid a growing global buzz over generative artificial intelligence, universities and schools around the world have banned ChatGPT. There have been concerns, among others, that the chatbot may lead to an escalation in plagiarism.

But education and innovation experts have urged teachers and institutions to think again, saying that since ChatGPT and other generative AI tools are here to stay and are part of young people’s lives, ways must be found of integrating them into education.

The four-day course that the Cape Town-based institute is rolling out with North-West University helps people to use new AI technologies to improve their performance.

“AI is a wonderful tool that will enable people to be more productive,” Geldenhuys told University World News. “But it will be a problem for those who don’t go through the rigour of a traditional educational environment, who short-circuit it and shoot themselves in the foot.”

He added that AI would, in a round-about way, reward original people. Because generative AI such as ChatGPT repeats everything that everybody else is saying, nothing it produces is original. Humans need to become creative in using these tools.

From an education perspective, Geldenhuys said, a student could generate a unique set of text that a lecturer would not know was created on an AI engine, but the formula can make many errors. And in that regard, he cautioned that one has to be careful in utilising it.

Learning for the future

According to Professor Saurabh Sinha, an electronic engineer and deputy vice-chancellor of research and internationalisation at the University of Johannesburg, the ability of ChatGPT to generate perfect and unique textual constructs and computing code is a major advancement. Supported by the Fulbright programme, he is currently on a research sabbatical at Princeton.

There is a need, Sinha told University World News, for universities to continuously strengthen the culture of academic integrity, in order to deal with ChatGPT and future AI developments, in line with the changing world of work that graduates will enter.

There will always be something new. Graduate preparedness is necessary, and adaptation and lifelong learning must be emphasised. Universities must simultaneously consider bots that detect plagiarism, to prevent academic misuse.

With advancing convergence between data, computing and communications, ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence tools are expected to deliver advances in a variety of areas.

Sinha pointed out that ChatGPT optimises language models for dialogue, interacting conversationally, and the dialogue format allows it to answer follow-up questions, admit mistakes, challenge incorrect premises, and reject inappropriate requests.

ChatGPT is a sibling model to InstructGPT, which is trained to follow instructions in a prompt and provide a detailed response. There has been a significant heightening of interest with the open access approach and advent of ChatGPT.

Sinha said ChatGPT and similar technologies are shaping the future world of work, and with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, more technology tools can be expected.

Since academia connects students ultimately with the world of work, Sinha told University World News, there are potential implications for academia too.

There are three aspects to consider: educating students on open AI tools and their pros and cons, perhaps using ChatGPT as a pedagogical tool; continuing to evolve assessments for the world of work; and ensuring that students and academics are made aware of AI detection tools.

Sinha noted that, in the past, anti-plagiarism detection tools have emerged – such as Turnitin, iThenticate and others. Similarly, tools are emerging to detect the usage of AI in essays and other compositions. For instance Princeton University student, Edward Tian, has already created one such tool, GPTZero.

“Universities continue evolving assessment methods in a world that requires adaptation. The availability of ChatGPT and other tools means that this evolution needs to be accelerated,” Sinha concluded.

Still widespread concerns

Dr Jaco du Toit, a senior lecturer and director at the Centre for Cyber Security at the University of Johannesburg, is more ambivalent about ChatGPT and said it was too early to ascertain its impacts on the tertiary education sector in South Africa and elsewhere.

Currently there is widespread concern about its uses for student assignments and forms of unsupervised assessments. “In my field we are concerned that students may not learn certain fundamental principles necessary to build new knowledge,” he told University World News.

Du Toit was unsure whether academics should embrace or be afraid of the technology. “One thing is clear – we should investigate it. We should understand its limitations and impacts better. By understanding better, we can respond to it better.”

Misplaced over-reaction

One of South Africa’s leading academics has described “early and over-reaction” to ChatGPT as misplaced. Professor Jonathan Jansen is distinguished professor of education at the University of Stellenbosch and president of the Academy of Science of South Africa.

He said that every new technology over, say, the past 100 years has come with perceived threats. But human ingenuity responded in ways that took the best out of the invention and worked around its excesses in the process.

These include, for example, in the short term, in-classroom assessments and, in the long term, detection technologies that can require students to produce their own work.

“The same will be true of this new bot,” Jansen told University World News.

ChatGPT is already being used for language processing tasks such as text generation, language translation and summarising, and can be used without replacing people in industries – such as for customer service, some medical diagnostics, marketing, content creation, and even academia, for instance as an initial reflection on a particular topic or desktop study.

Jansen believes that in the humanities and social sciences, ChatGPT will force academics to be much more inventive in the quality of assessments they conduct.

“I don’t think South Africans have grappled with this new AI invention yet, which is a very sad commentary on the state of academia – asleep at the higher education wheel,” he said.