Between the crypto collapse and Mark Zuckerberg’s failing metaverse vision, artificial intelligence looks like the futurist vision that will actually hold water in the present.
Since the arrival of ChatGPT in November, Google has announced its own AI, Bard. Microsoft has stated its plan to invest $10 billion in ChatGPT’s parent company, Open AI, coinciding with its implementation inside of the Bing search engine. And tech leaders like Bill Gates and Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang have placed ChatGPT’s launch in the same category of magnitude as the creations of the internet and the iPhone.
Advocates say that no job will remain unaffected by the technology and suggest that the age of artificial intelligence has finally begun.
So I asked three Dallas Baptist University professors about their fears concerning AI like ChatGPT disrupting higher education.
How will ChatGPT affect colleges?
AI like ChatGPT is based on what’s known as a large language model (LLM), which is “a deep learning algorithm that can recognize, summarize, translate, predict and generate text and other content based on knowledge gained from massive datasets. . . . large enough to include nearly everything that has been written on the internet over a large span of time.”
Though the public seems generally accepting of the new technology, some very clear challenges present themselves.
For one, the issues of authorship and plagiarism are significant, as an AI’s synthesis of pre-written data can leave no trace of the data’s original creator. Furthermore, as Bard showed last week, these AIs can confidently assert facts that are flat-out wrong. AI also has the potential to be misused, which the CEO of Open AI admits has the potential to run very hazardous risks.
And then, of course, there is the challenge of education and learning in a world dominated by LLMs.
Since the beginning of ChatGPT’s time in the spotlight, commentators have expressed concern that the program’s writing capabilities will render writing assignments obsolete. Already, teachers have seen an increase in students’ use of ChatGPT to complete assignments. Though the debate remains as to whether or not educators should learn to implement ChatGPT in the classroom or leave it alone, it is becoming increasingly apparent that, one way or another, confrontation with the AI will be inevitable.
If artificial intelligence proves to be as revolutionary to our way of living as we are told, then we would be wise to first carefully consider the technology and the state of our own souls in order to allow the Holy Spirit to speak to us.
As my conversations with three particular university professors suggest, ChatGPT’s presence holds ample opportunity for Christians to reflect on the nature of understanding and expression, two crucial elements in our worshipful lives.
AI in higher education: “Not at all worried”
I met with Dr. Jodi Grimes, Dr. Karen Alexander, and Dr. Philip Mitchell. All three are long-standing faculty members of the College of Humanities at Dallas Baptist University. Dr. Grimes is the department chair, Dr. Mitchell is the director of the university’s Honors program, and Dr. Alexander teaches across a number of Spanish and English classes.
Naturally, professors of a department chiefly concerned with building critical thought and reflection hold a particular stake in the issue of AI in higher education, and as the College of Humanities rolls into a new semester, the conversation in the office often swirls around ChatGPT.
All three agree that there’s cause for concern with this technology. However, when asked if they were worried about higher education’s potential irrelevance through AI, all three professors answered with a definitive no.
Indeed, there seems to be a hearty spirit of endurance in the humanities, a realm of higher education that has already faced its fair share of uphill battles against a system largely driven by pragmatic approaches to learning. As Dr. Mitchell states, “I never thought that the whole purpose of what I do was merely to develop a few tech writers.”
The purpose of Christian higher education
While it is the responsibility of humanities teachers to develop quality writing and communication skills for students to implement within their vocation, these educators do not see their work as ending with that goal. Rather, they see their role as much more formative to the character and souls of their students, shaping them to see their God-reflected image through the creation and expression of ideas and values.
“God gave us an intellect to sharpen,” says Dr. Grimes, an act that she argues involves both what we put into our minds and what comes out of them. The act of sharpening, according to Dr. Alexander, is never an end in itself. “God’s goal for us is to be like Christ,” she says. “Our pursuit of knowledge has to come under God.” This means that the output and the input of our intellect must be subjected to the Lord.
Furthermore, as Dr. Mitchell states, our intellectual capacity extends to our ability to engage with the world outside of us. “A fully realized human being is about culture making and culture care, which requires a disciplined, creative, and reflective mind.”
All three professors see their roles as educators to be fostering redemptive learning for their students.
Teaching what computers can’t
If creation’s redemption is to be the goal of Christ-oriented learning, then educators should be sure that this value is clearly established before any tool, chatbot or otherwise, is given too much reign in the classroom.
Furthermore, if ChatGPT is to be implemented in class, it must only be allowed insofar as it does not blur the student’s understanding of who they are in relation to God and the world around them.
For Dr. Grimes and Dr. Alexander, who both see some potential use for AI in the classroom such as helping construct bibliographies, preliminary work must first require students to connect with one another and with the class material.
In Dr. Grimes’ World Literature classes, she challenges her freshman and sophomore students to explore the “spark” of human writing, that which is absent in content generators. From the smile on her face, it is clear that she has been pleased with the results of these discussions.
She said that “in many ways, I’m seeing students make personal connections with the literature, choosing to write on things personally relevant because they know that will inspire more of their originality than something that could be generated by anybody.”
It is almost as if the emergence of LLMs like ChatGPT has created an opportunity for counterreaction in these classes, one that Dr. Grimes is grateful for. “It may actually be my most exciting semester of teaching writing . . . ever,” she affirms, before adding with emphasis, “Ever!”
As Dr. Grimes encourages her students to find originality within themselves and their assignments, Dr. Alexander expounds upon the search through the emphasis on community in her classes. In her entry-level composition class, she poses the question, “What is unique about your perspective on the world?”
“For example,” she says, “before I was five, I lived in Turkey and spoke both Turkish and English. I think this changes the way I look at things.” She asks her students to share similar facts with one another, then calls on them to share what they’ve learned about their partners, affirming that which gives their peers a voice that is uniquely their own.
“I am trying to show these students that ChatGPT can be a tool. But,” she asserts, “it can never be your voice.”
Beyond the classroom
Although my discussions with the professors began focused on the presence of AI like ChatGPT in higher education, it was clear that the implications reached beyond.
Dr. Mitchell suggests that an underlying issue lies behind automated essays. “I’m a little concerned about how the immediate discussion has been about ‘How do we make sure students aren’t cheating?’ when the deeper question is ‘Why do we care whether they’re cheating or not?’”
Indeed, if learning and understanding suggest a process of spiritual actualization within God’s creation, then an overreliance on technological tools can suggest either an unwillingness or an inability to see life in its proper, God-appointed context. “You lose something essential to the process,” Dr. Mitchell laments. Dr. Alexander expresses it more gravely when she describes technological reliance as “another manifestation of Satan’s desire to erase God’s creation.”
This may seem dark, but this is the potential that any idol can hold against us when it takes a place of value in our hearts it was not meant to hold. For technology, with its promises of convenience and ease, as well as its saturation in numerous aspects of our lives, the danger is particularly real.
To surrender our intellect to God’s sanctification
Many of us may no longer be in school, so the temptation to have an AI write our papers for us may be nonexistent. However, that doesn’t change the fact that we also are faced daily with the opportunity to compromise on our understanding of the world and the people around us, whom God has called us to live in communion with, rather than to strive for harmony with the Holy Spirit. This poses the risk of perpetuating a life defined on the basis of our idols and not on the basis of God’s will.
Awareness of this fact should cause us to question where in our lives we have allowed our view of life to go unchallenged—and to question what aspects of living a life like Christ have been lost in the process.
As the world changes around us at a pace that’s nearly impossible to keep up with, it is vital that we surrender our intellect to the sanctification of the Spirit, lest we become misled. Jesus says in John, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27–28). To seek the Lord’s guidance over our own understanding is the only way to navigate the disruptive voices around us.
The Apostle Peter offers encouragement for those who seek the Lord amidst confounding times: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith. . . . And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:8–10).
How will you love the Lord with your mind?