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Whether 15 or 50 years old, many of us can recall a time when we either helped another student pass a test for a price or sought help from a friend.

While the act itself is considered cheating, it is one many can admit to committing at least once in their life.

As technology has faded out of these academic side hustles, a new wave of performance aids has risen, leaving many questioning what the future of learning and employment will look like across several sectors. 

On November 30th, 2022, San Francisco-based OpenAI launched for free to the public. The chatbot, also known as a generative AI, responds to virtually any prompt you give it with startling speed and clarity. 

Only two months after its launch, ChatGPT had 100 million monthly active users in January, according to data from Similarweb. For context, it took Instagram two and a half years to get to 100 million. TikTok got there in nine months.

A study recently conducted by the Swiss bank UBS, noted, “in 20 years following the internet space, we cannot recall a faster ramp in a consumer internet app.” 

What makes the growth of ChatGPT so unique is its ability to handle complex questions that deliver essay-length responses on pretty much any topic. The technology is able to do this by running the Internet’s vast amounts of data through powerful neural networks: software loosely designed on neurons in the human brain. 

While many of us have found a way to bring this topic up at the dinner table, according to experts, this technology isn’t new and has existed for several years. Meta’s chief AI scientist Yann LeCun recently argued that ChatGPT was “not particularly innovative” and relied heavily on Google’s Transformer neural network technology.

Although the technology isn’t new, its sudden growth in popularity has sparked questions about how AI can replace professions, enable students to cheat, and shift our relationship with technology.

Academic implications

In our own backyard, the use of AI software in an academic setting has left many students and staff at the University of Victoria questioning the moral implications of the new resource.

On March 17th, the University of Victoria’s Matrix Institute hosted a panel discussion surrounding the impacts and implications of Generative AI on academia. 

When asked if the nationally recognized university has been able to effectively use AI in its academic practice, Dr. Valerie Irvine, Assistant Professor of Educational Technology at UVic answered, “no, I don’t think any campus is ready to institutionally use AI.”

According to the panel, the benefits and challenges of AI on education are nuanced as each department currently faces different threats and limitations on quality learning for its students.

Posed with the question of whether AI can reduce workloads, 4th-year software engineering student, Callum Curtis, spoke candidly on his experiences using the resource.

“ChatGPT helps summarize a topic, it can help bring ideas to you to help your understanding. Yet, there are often problems with ChatGPT as the information coming out is flat.” 

“If you had an assignment, you’ll give it a prompt and it’ll give you an answer with a template as to how it works. If students only follow this approach, there’s a risk of bypassing a deeper understanding of a topic.”

While some academics have expressed their concerns with the performative AI technology, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, Neil Ernst, tells Victoria Buzz there are positives to take away from resources such as ChatGPT that will force Universities to critically look inward at the way the curriculum is designed.

We need to come up with ways to assess the individual ability to know what’s going on and get rid of assignments that are just work exercises that are not really necessary anymore,” says Ernst.

As for the implications of the resource, Ernst is most concerned about the influence it will have on student’s ability to connect complex ideas in an academic setting. 

Communication is probably the number one skill that all graduates need at UVic. Whether you’re studying engineering or psych. I don’t think there is any easy way around learning how to write good essays and I think that is something ChatGPT might make difficult for us to ensure students know how to compare and contrast topics.”

While ChatGPT is presently limited in certain areas of critical thought, such as writing articles on recent events or complex code, the imminent threat surrounding this new technology comes from the rapid and significant upgrades the technology is receiving through the training of these powerful AI systems.

This week, some of the biggest names in tech have called for a pause in the development of AI systems for at least six months, citing “profound risks to society and humanity”.

Elon Musk was among the dozens of tech leaders, professors and researchers who signed the letter, which was published by the Future of Life Institute, a nonprofit backed by Musk.

The letter comes just two weeks after OpenAI announced GPT-4, an even more powerful version of the technology that far exceeds the performance of ChatGPT. 

In early tests, the technology has been able to draft lawsuits, pass standardized exams and build a working website from scratch.

“Advanced AI could represent a profound change in the history of life on Earth, and should be planned for and managed with commensurate care and resources,” the letter said

“Unfortunately, this level of planning and management is not happening, even though recent months have seen AI labs locked in an out-of-control race to develop and deploy ever more powerful digital minds that no one – not even their creators – can understand, predict, or reliably control.”

If a pause is not put in place soon, the letter said governments should step in and create a moratorium.

With this vastly improving technology being publicly introduced in our day-to-day lives, are you in favour or against the use of AI technology?