December 9, 2022 - 1:00pm

The threat Artificial Intelligence (AI) poses to white-collar professions seemed to escalate earlier this week as ChatGPT, a text-generating AI crafted by an Elon Musk-founded company, expanded on bot capabilities which two years ago wrote an op-ed for the Guardian. It is not just journalists under threat, however: academics recounted on Twitter how they fed exam questions into the chatbot, prompting it to produce answers that would merit decent marks, and which would be difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish from work submitted by a student. 

Having signed up to test the software myself, I would assess its output roughly at the level of Zoe Williams, or maybe at a push Owen Jones – it is not yet quite at the level of a Polly Toynbee. Yet if ChatGPT only threatened the jobs of Guardian op-ed writers and the increasingly prolific essay mills that produce undergraduate essays to order, there would be little to worry about. What is more worrying about ChatGPT is what it tells us about the degraded state of academic teaching and the orthodoxies that dominate its hallowed corridors. 

 

Some researchers have already identified the latent political bias of ChatGPT, with its ‘opinions’ clearly lying on the progressive political Left, reflecting what a sanitised Internet policed by content moderators and hate speech laws looks like. That culling bien-pensant opinion from the web would be indistinguishable from the work of undergraduates indicates not only the general lack of original or independent thinking in universities, but also the actual process of education itself.

Long before ChatGPT, academics have been happily collaborating in a management-led process of steadily automating education. We record and upload lectures, agree to provide hand-outs with every session, and provide multiple lecture slides with gobbets of information delivered by an endless list of bullet points. 

Often, we are even required to directly provide individual items of readings with the reading list, presumably in order to save the students the trouble of having to go to the (online) library in order to download the material themselves, and risk perhaps stumbling across another possibly relevant and interesting item to read. Here, the lecturer is already reduced to being the increasingly redundant and generic adjunct for an automated system of online provision — and this is without even mentioning the ever-more censorious and dogmatic atmosphere on many campuses. 

That ChatGPT would blow apart university assessment reflects marking processes that are increasingly weighted toward coursework in place of more demanding and stressful exams. Many universities offer students several resubmission opportunities should they fail. That is to say nothing of the increasing reliance on multiple choice quizzes that are already marked automatically, or the mania in the humanities and social sciences for alternative forms of assessment.

Needless to say, all these degraded and degrading trends were exacerbated during lockdown, when many academics willingly embraced wholesale the technologies of distance learning. Despite the fact that most undergraduates were in the demographic cohort least susceptible to Covid-19, the academics’ union UCU irresponsibly claimed that universities would become the next ‘care homes’ of the pandemic and that scrapping in-person teaching was a ‘victory’. 

Who needs Elon Musk when we have UCU? Academics’ enthusiastic embrace of lockdown reflected a profession that sees little to no value in education as an inter-personal relationship. These corrosive trends are set to continue: Oxford University’s Hertford College says that entrance interviews this year will be conducted online only. 

In due course, perhaps the Oxbridge interviewer will also be replaced by a chatbot that can be relied upon not to stray from the requisite script, interviewing prospective students who in turn provide answers generated by another AI. Welcome to the university of the future.


Philip Cunliffe is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London. He is author or editor of eight books, as well as a co-author of Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy After Brexit (2023). He is one of the hosts of the Bungacast podcast.

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