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  Opinion   Columnists  01 Jul 2023  Shashi Warrier | Will ChatGPT spell end of exams and teachers?

Shashi Warrier | Will ChatGPT spell end of exams and teachers?

Shashi Warrier has written fairy tales, thrillers, a semi-fictional biography, satires, and a love story. Besides writing, he teaches strategic communication at a business school.
Published : Jul 2, 2023, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Jul 2, 2023, 1:41 am IST

Have you used ChatGPT?

Will artificial intelligence replace traditional education? (Photo: Wikipedia)
 Will artificial intelligence replace traditional education? (Photo: Wikipedia)

My professor friend Raghavan dropped in the other day with his shoulders bowed as if he, not Atlas, bore the weight of the earth. “What’s up?” I asked, leading him to the sitting room and pouring him a large drink.
“It’s that time of the year again,” he said.
“Monsoons?” I asked, because the rains have been poor and aren’t likely to improve. “But...”
“Not monsoons,” he said, interrupting me. “Exams. I hate them even more than students do.”
I remembered my own misspent years in college, when professors were sadists whose idea of fun was telling you that they were holding you back for a semester. And here was Raghavan moaning that he hated exams! I couldn’t understand it, and said so.
“I’m not trying to hold anyone back,” he said. He smiled weakly. “That would be a reflection on my teaching.”
“So what’s the problem?” I asked.
“A student yesterday showed me what she can do with her cellphone,” he replied. “She got a publicly available program to write an answer to practically any question I can ask in an exam. In under five seconds.”
“Hasn’t Google been around for decades?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied, “but I’m not talking about a search engine.”
“What are you talking about, then?” I asked.
“Artificial Intelligence,” he replied. “AI. It’s going to throw everything we know out of the window.”
I have trouble enough with natural intelligence so I leave the artificial version to others. “How?” I asked.
“Have you used ChatGPT?” he asked.
“I’ve heard of it,” I said, “but have no idea what it does.”
“If you ask it a question,” he said, “it composes an answer based on data available on the Internet. You can ask in regular english, and the answers are plausible. Ask it to write a recipe book in English for traditional South Indian delicacies, and that’s what you’ll likely get. A student with a cellphone and an Internet connection can answer practically any question she might face in an exam. It can even write software programs.”
“So no cellphones in exam halls,” I said.
“That’s what’s happening,” he said. “But the old exams that test your memory are no use. Banning cellphones might help in the short term, but we really have no idea what’s coming in the next few years.”
I felt reassured: I, too, had no idea, and shared ignorance is a great comfort. “What can we do about it?” I asked.
His answer shook me up. “I’ve been reading up about AI and its effects,” he said. “ChatGPT’s old: new tech is far ahead. Nobody’s sure, but ‘experts’ say different things about it. People who develop AI, people who use it to drive cars and translate languages, and so on. One extreme view is that AI will wipe out humans. The other extreme is that humans can’t survive without it.”
“Well, so what does this have to do with students?” I asked.
“Students have to know what’s coming,”  he said. “They need to know the kind of careers they might have. And the worst way to get them to see that is to ban cellphones in exam halls. When they emerge from college and start working, no one’s going to tell them to hand in their cellphones before they enter the office, right? And they’ll have lots of computers.”
“Right!” I said. “Doesn’t the university understand that?”
“The university thinks differently,” he said. “They have to defend whatever they’ve been doing all these years. Besides, it’s a matter of jobs...” A pause, before the truth was out. “AI could replace me.”
“How could it do that?” I asked. “Don’t you give students individual treatment?”
“I try,” he replied, “but I’m limited by the 50-odd students in each class.”
“Won’t that apply to AI teachers as well?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “The AI teacher works one-on-one. Students log in at individual terminals. The teacher asks a few questions, figures out how much the student knows, and tailors the session appropriately. Each student learns at her own pace, at her own convenience... And, especially in India, in the language she knows best! The technology to do this already exists... It could destroy universities as we know them.”
“Don’t universities also do research?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said. “They do. Much of it is in the form of PhD theses for certification, which ChatGPT can do free in hours... Besides, AI comes up with more ideas for research than people do. It can construct hypotheses, define axioms, and develop theories faster than a human can.”
“So a lot of very educated people are going to be unemployed,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “Maybe even judges. An AI system can look up every precedent, work out changes, understand charge sheets, and arrive at a judgment in less than one per cent of the time it takes a human judge. An AI system can can make policy decisions better and faster than any politician can, and maybe diagnoses better than doctors. So, better teachers, judges, leaders, doctors... AI can do all that. Aren’t you worried you’ll be replaced? What do you do?”
I thought for a moment. What do I do? The answer came in a flash. “Well, nothing.” I said, “I just bumble around. So an AI system can’t very well replace me, can it?”
His face began to go purple in anger. Just when he was going to explode, his phone rang. It was his wife, calling him home, and he had to leave. I saw him to the door, of course, but I still haven’t understood why he got mad at me.


Tags: artificial intelligence (ai), ai technology, ai teachers, future careers