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Give that laptop an "A"

Ala Z

The education world has been thrown into something of a panic by the latest development in artificial intelligence, the so-called Chatbot, which can mimic human language, and perhaps even a kind of human thinking.

Computers have been used to cheat on tests for a long time, because most tests are about facts, and computers are brilliant at seeking out facts and quotable fragments that students can pass off as their own. This long ago created an epidemic of plagiarism, an educational crime almost as heinous as political incorrectness or a taste for 1940s Big Band music. Some students are required to sign long documents, written by lawyers who stole the wording from other lawyers, certifying that they understand the penalties for plagiarism. They sign happily, confident that they will never be found out.

Plagiarism is defined as the theft of intellectual property, or more plainly stuff that other people have made up or created. This essay is my intellectual property, and could conceivably be plagiarized by some abysmally stupid student somewhere, who would get a well-deserved "F."

It is dangerously easy to commit this sin by adopting a half-remembered idea or turn of phrase. There’s nothing new under the sun. It’s all been thought and said before, and will be again. “I have never had an original thought,” said Mark Twain, and I can’t help agreeing with him.

Plagiarism is a very ancient habit. Shakespeare stole most of his historical plots directly from the unreliable histories of Holinshed. Laurence Sterne and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were both accused of plagiarism.

In modern times, plagiarism is not limited to lazy and dishonest students. Lazy and dishonest adults are equally guilty — novelists, academics, politicians, and especially movie makers who seem stuck in a circle of eternal repetition. Real creativity is very rare.

Most of what we call our culture is plagiarism. We can’t reinvent the world every day, but we can and do copy the good stuff from the past, and perhaps transform it in the process. We can forgive a modest amount of plagiarism, especially if it’s well done. In the academic world, the whole thing is a bit of a game, hence the old saying that stealing from one source is plagiarism and stealing from many is research.

In teaching, essay questions have been the traditional device for making plagiarism difficult, although goodness knows there are millions of essays out on the web that any student can use. The new factor is this program called a ChatGBT or Chatbot which can apparently create convincing original essays at almost any educational level. This will produce headaches in the groves of academe for years to come.

We wouldn’t want to go back to the bad old days when we had to walk to the library, find books, take notes, and organize the notes into an essay.

It’s amazing we survived the stress. The only solution I can see is to embrace the inevitable triumph of artificial intelligence and grade the students’ laptops instead of the students themselves. Nobody will learn anything, of course, but that scarcely matters because we are assured that, in the future, with artificial intelligence and automation taking care of everything, there will be no further need for human work or thought. So let the computers do the studying, and then let the computers do the work.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.