Our Illiterate AI Future


Technology is in a constant state of evolution and change, and we can either move with it and accept it or protest and rage against the machine. However, I do think there is something to say for a smooth transition even if it is inevitable. I look back to my own prehistoric past when programming was done using Fortran on decks of punched computer cards. One of the first real video games, Pong, was played by connecting to a large TV console which allowed players to engage in a crude version of tennis. I played my first electronic game with a suitcase size console connected with alligator clips to a traditional landline, which in turn connected to a room-sized computer at my university. It was a game of golf that gave me feedback via a dot matrix printer. It was amazing!

In my elementary grades, I was required to learn multiplication tables and do long division and mental math problems. As a result, although never a math whiz, I could do mathematical estimations and even do magical wizardry like give change when I worked as a cashier in a fast food restaurant. The pace of life has moved on at warp speed, leaving my childhood in the technological dark ages. Toys and even computers I first played with are now artifacts and museum pieces. It is a humbling experience.

Technology, of course, is instrumental in delivering a certain quality of life, but, I believe, at an increasing cost as today the most recent changes revolve around progress in artificial intelligence (AI). It is both invigorating and frightening at the same time. As a student and now as an educator, I know firsthand that it has always been easy for students to cheat and plagiarize. In this era, we as educators are open to levels of threat in these arenas never before realized, so is this modern marvel of technology, AI, here to save us or to destroy us?

Apps like ChatGPT and others like it can now generate reports, essays, and any form of writing and style within seconds, utilizing any content implementing the collective knowledge and ignorance amassed on the Internet. To date, it won’t engage on political or religious topics but it does seem to have strong “opinions” about “Flat Earthers.” I have enjoyed my time engaging with it and I don’t know whether to address AI as friend or enemy at this point.

Students have been using calculators, translators, and other devices for years. Has this had the net result of strengthening or weakening their math and writing skills? In the final analysis, are these new technologies just new tools to play with in order that our students be even better researchers and writers, or are they crutches that bring the whole academic system crashing down?

I’d like to say time will tell, but the fact of the matter is, time, in this case, moves so quickly, and change of this nature is so rapid that we do not have the luxury to let this scenario play out to allow us one day, from an armchair, to leisurely draw our conclusions. By then, fate will have been sealed and AI may be calling the shots as it may be smarter than the human collective by that time.

My own impression is that many of the new technologies that do the work for us and bring us information and “knowledge” at high speeds, in the end, warp our education, influence our bias, slow our senses, cloud our judgements, pollute our politics, weaken our democracy, spread hate, and generally act as the change agent that weakens and erodes society. Although, I hasten to add that I have seen many funny cat memes.

I don’t wish to be labelled luddite, and I recognize that AI is also an inevitability. Therefore, we must learn how to understand it and use it as a tool to expand our abilities. I say this reluctantly and with very little optimism. My real fear is, as I look at a society that is presently mathematically illiterate, with its smart phones, social media and the rest and progressing towards being socially illiterate as we fixate on our devices and monitors for endless hours, we are about to enter the era of actual illiteracy in a written sense.

As an aside, cursive writing is long gone. Now, we will begin the much more important, real, and rapid loss of the ability to write actual sentences based on research and thought, while personally formulating opinions on a range of relevant topics. I doubt if we will be able to react smartly enough and fast enough to integrate AI effectively into educational systems in such a way that we can adequately measure, adapt, and control standards of use in acceptable ways before IT controls us.

This article expresses my concerns about the potential negative impacts AI can have on education and literacy in the near future. The seductive allures of technology may take us to places where we should never go, even if we have the ability. Hopefully, we still have the wisdom to integrate and control the best of what we create.

This essay was written by ChatGPT, using a translator and spell check, or was it?


Marty Rempel
Marty Rempel has been an educator in many capacities and places, serving as a teacher in Kuwait and the Bahamas, Special Education Co-ordinator in Northern Alberta with Cree and Dene students, a principal in Jinhua, China and currently a principal in Markham, ON, at a school catering to students from mainland China.

This article is featured in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Fall 2023 issue.

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