Is AI going to make learning irrelevant?
The only thing increasing faster than inflation lately is interest in AI. In particular, everyone's looking at ChatGPT and OpenAI's other products. As more people write their takes, it feels like the marginal value decreases. But you know what, people are still accepting the currency, so let's fire up that printing press and write my own take!
I have been following the daily updates on AI and its uses. Strangely, I seem to be following it more than my students are. Occasionally I demo one of the platforms for the students, and it's usually their first time seeing it.
On my last demo, one of my students asked, "Won't this take away the incentive to learn anything?"
This is a common concern around this technology. In fact, many professors are trying to figure out how to assess learning in an era where all students have access to ChatGPT. In February, my university sent a campus-wide email on its policy going forward (tl;dr: we can't really stop them, so let's at least be aware it's out there).
But I think that idea is wrong. Not only do I think it's wrong, I think it's completely the opposite. These platforms are an opportunity to accelerate learning because they transform the economics of learning.
First, these platforms drastically reduce the cost of information. In my demo to my students, I asked if any spoke any obscure languages. One responded that he speaks Lithuanian. There are only X people who speak Lithuanian in the world. As you can imagine, there's not a lot of content serving them. But Bing Chat speaks Lithuanian. And Bing Chat can search the internet for news. So I had him ask it to summarize what had happened with Silicon Valley Bank in Lithuanian. The response was perfect.
I've mentioned this before in videos and on the newsletter, one of the biggest barriers to education in poor countries is that most students cannot access content in their native language. Instead, they are forced to learn in a second and sometimes a third language. In fact, shoutout to the viewers who shared their experiences trying to learn like this!
These AI platforms are more than the crappy translations that you find on Google translate. They are original, synthesized, intelligible summaries. There is a huge difference between, "Translate this paragraph to my language," which requires you to be able to find a source in the first place, and "Can you summarize what's going on?"
You could even have an AI generate a textbook in another language. Would it be 100% accurate? No, but that’s why you have an expert review it. But that’s easy. Writing something from scratch is at least 100 times harder than revising something that has already been written. Let AI write the first draft.
And we're just at the beginning. Another struggle that these students face is that they do not have someone at home who can help them with school. But smartphones are prevalent in developing countries. Imagine a personal virtual tutor who could help students learn at home. Students will start learning faster than the Fed hiked interest rates.
These are just some examples of how AI creates huge reductions in the cost of information. And reducing costs is how you shift supply. Once supply increases, we can move down the demand curve and get more education.
Another way that AI will actually accelerate learning is by increasing the productivity of learning. Productivity increases when we can do more with the same or fewer resources. Let's walk through a typical, non-school, learning experience.
You're watching Captain America: Civil War and you hear Tony Stark comment on the Lend Lease Act. You didn't have a great American History teacher, and the curriculum usually ends around World War II anyway, so you're not totally sure what they're referring to. It doesn't seem relevant to the plot, but it does seem to represent something about the difference in views that Iron Man and Captain America represent.
So you get on the Lend-Lease Wikipedia page. Holy cow! There is so much information on this page. And most of it is irrelevant to the simple questions you have, "What was the Lend Lease Act? How did it push the US towards World War II?"
Instead of reading through all of that, you can jump on an AI platform and ask those questions. In response, you'll get concise, simple answers. Here's the answer Bing Chat gave me:
The Lend-Lease Act was controversial and faced opposition from isolationists who believed that it would push the US closer to war. They argued that the Act would drag the US into the war by providing aid to the Allies, and that it would be difficult to recover the equipment and supplies that were lent or leased. However, supporters of the Act argued that it would help the US remain neutral by providing aid to the Allies, which would help them resist the Axis powers and prevent the US from being drawn into the war.
From this, I can see that Tony sees the Sokovia Accords as a way to prevent conflicts. Steve is warning that they might actually pave the path to greater conflicts.
But wait, isn't this the laziness that we're worried about? Isn't learning a process of reading and synthesizing information?
No, because the goal isn't to understand the Lend-Lease Act. The goal is to understand the movie. I'm missing context, and it turns out that missing context is the biggest impediment to reading comprehension. AI can increase learning productivity by filling in context gaps.
Here's a fun example of how context matters a lot for reading comprehension. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Fred and George Weasley create an uncrossable swamp in a Hogwarts hall. Later the book says, "Filch was punting students across the swamp."
To an American, that sentence conjures a very funny image. I imagine students sailing through the air as Filch kicks them. That's because "punt" in America is what kickers do in football games. But in England, "punt" means to "row". (I guess they couldn't use "row" in England since that means fight, which could also include a lot of kicking/punting....). But the funny thing is students flying through the air totally makes sense in a magical school, so it added to the scene’s hilarity!
Here's another example. Twice in this newsletter I made economics-centered jokes. One about inflation and another about interest rates. You had no problem reading those because you're deep in economics, and hopefully you smirked at the jokes. But a non-economics audience might have no idea what I'm referring to.
The point is, context is important to comprehension. That Harry Potter sentence means completely different things if you are in England or in America. And that's because of one silly word. If the text relies on allusions to literature or history, or uses metaphors based on unfamiliar things, that's an impediment to your learning.
What ways do you see AI leading to more learning instead of less?
Great newsletter! However we ignore the fact that A.I. can be inaccurate and false. Just because it is correct 99.9% of the time we assume that it cannot make that 0.01% error. As a student, it has helped me find case studies for references and writing but it hasn't been accurate all the time.