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AIs and Writing

by Dr. Del Doughty

I’ve spent most of my academic career as a writing instructor, teaching freshman composition, creative writing, etc. I love teaching writing because I love good writing and I love helping students figure out how to do it effectively and even, on occasion, to find the joy in it. Expressing oneself clearly demands so much of a person, so when you get it right, wow! When, as an undergraduate, I learned of Gustave Flaubert’s endless searches for le mot juste, “the exact word,” I immediately identified with the sweet agony he described in his process. Writing well is hard, but also a rush.

Imagine my surprise, then, last fall when I learned of generative artificial intelligence (AI) programs that now compose original compositions undetectable by plagiarism software. I went online and tried out one program for myself. I gave it some basic instructions for writing an essay on collaboration and two seconds later, it produced something that, if not good (I wouldn’t give it better than a C), was not obviously awful.

In time, I’m sure the quality will improve. In prompting the program to provide tips on collaboration, some might say I collaborated with AI. It feels weird thinking of it that way, but I guess I need to get used to it. Some of the world’s leading thinkers about the future—the World Economic Forum, Pew Research, the McKinsey Institute—tell us that the robots’ arrival is not some distant future event but is already happening, changing the way we live and work and learn. Even if we know this to be true, it’s always freaky when it hits close to home. I spent years teaching composition in college. How will the advent of AI change the way we write, and the way we teach writing? Will students learn to write with AI and then have their writing graded by AI?

Tech pessimists fear robots will put humans out of work, while tech optimists are more likely to say humans will more likely find themselves working alongside robots and other forms of AI. In that scenario, the nature of work will change, as indeed it already is changing. And if the nature of work changes, so too, then, will the nature of education.

Joseph Aoun, President of Northeastern University and author of Robot-Proof, proposes a new disciplinary formation to prepare humans for this environment. He calls it “humanics,” and it consists of three pillars:

1. Tech Savvy – the ability to understand how machines work and how to collaborate with them.

2. Data Literacy – the ability to navigate the churn of data generated by machines and to discern meaningful signals and patterns therein.

3. Humanistic Knowledge and Skill – the ability to do things that, for the foreseeable future, are unique to humans: problem-finding, practicing empathy, transferring knowledge from one domain to another (i.e., connecting dots, a function of “generalized intelligence”), and starting and running an enterprise, among other things.

I like that there’s a key role for the humanities to play in the future Aoun imagines. He contends that if you learn the skills and dispositions provided by a humanistic education, you will be better able to engage with others, be they carbon- or silicon-based.

When we really begin collaborating with AI at this level, we are sure to encounter many surprises and astounding moments. A humanities education can supply people with the philosophy, the narrative frameworks and the critical thinking to address them.

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