Navigating the AI landscape: From apprehension to appreciation

Despite his many years in the information industry, following technological advances from CD-ROMs to the early years of the internet, the dot com boom, and the development of social media tools, Phil Bradley admits he has have never seen anything like the explosion of AI based tools, and the opportunities that they are bringing us.

I have always been used to the idea of new technologies catching on, but in just 6 months, the entire landscape started to change. I’ve switched my search engine from Google to Bing and my main browser from Chrome to Edge. I’m also using a whole raft of new tools.

When I first started checking on the number of tools that used AI as an essential component last December there were about 200 of them. When I looked yesterday there were over 3,500. Some of them are amazing, others are rubbish. When I first started thinking about teaching AI, I would find a tool and see how it could help people. I’ve turned that process on its head now, because I’m looking at activities and seeing which AI tools are most useful to assist in that activity.

I’m doing exactly the same thing that I did back in the 2000s when I was looking at the explosion of Web 2 tools and the rise of social media. (I’m also seeing the fear, distrust and blocking of tools in exactly the same way, but that’s another story for another day.) People are understandably wary of using AI, and that’s OK; a lot of people are uncomfortable with change. However, that apprehension should not be a barrier to using these new tools and embracing AI technology.  The sooner you get used to this stuff and start using it effectively to support your activity, the better off you’ll be.

Hybrid writing and life skills

One phrase you’re going to see a lot of in the future is “hybrid writing”—when an AI tool writes something for you that you then expand on or re-edit. It also refers to asking an AI tool to re-write, change or add to pre-existing text. I am seeing a lot of people absolutely horror struck by this notion, whilst others enthusiastically adopt it. Particularly in the field of education, teachers and other academics get very upset. Schools are banning access to ChatGPT (and I have no idea what their thought processes are here!) as they desperately struggle to maintain an out of date paradigm—that the way to teach or assess pupils is by written essay.

Students do need to learn how to read, write, compose clear sentences, create a coherent set of thoughts and put them down on paper in some form or the other. These are life skills. However—and this is where I think I’m going to diverge from the thoughts many of you have—I have absolutely no issue with a student, or indeed anyone else, using AI produced content, either in whole, or in part, with the caveat that there is a person in the loop. That person has to prompt the AI, review what the AI has written, assess it for readability and general sense, and check it for factual inaccuracies. They also need to instruct an AI to redo work that’s not correct. To do this, they need the aforementioned life skills to enable them to read, write, assess and evaluate content. Those are the skills that are important, and will increasingly be important in the future. The basic work of writing a blog title, paragraph or marketing blurb—not so much.

Adjusting to a new paradigm

“But.. but.. but...” I hear you cry, and I totally get it; your apprehension is entirely reasonable. However, so not let that stop you. Many of us are living in an out-of-date paradigm, one that’s changed incredibly quickly, and we are going to have to adjust to a new situation. I now have ChatGPT on my phone, and I also have a bunch of other AI tools sitting there quite happily as well, snuggled up next to my calculator app, which I find helpful because I’m quite poor at maths.

I can integrate tools into my email application, or my word processor, and use them instantly. I can say to a tool, “Please answer this email and say that regretfully I’m not available on that day, but I can do a date next month. Check my calendar and give some suggestions and make it warm and slightly informal”. And as long as I’m clear on what I want, I don’t need to write the email myself. Of course, I also need to check to see that it’s done what I want, so I still need to be able to read, comprehend, edit and so on—those essential life skills—but to write the email itself? Nope. Not necessary.

What are we actually doing when we ask a student to write an essay? We want students to research the subject, assess the data, assign importance to some information, discard other material, and evaluate the information. They then have to produce an essay that is coherent, makes all necessary points and produces a good conclusion. What is changing, and really rapidly, is how they are going to do that. They’re not going to need to find books, read around the subject, then slowly hone in on the actual subject matter they need, follow threads, collate the content and write the essay. They are going to go to an AI tool to get an overview of the subject, understand, comprehend and evaluate what they are told, decide what to do with that information, dive down into some elements of the retrieved data, rearrange it, get an AI tool to write an overview, to assess it critically, edit it to taste and present it.

Role of books  

I’m also tentatively going to suggest that the role of books in that entire process is becoming increasingly redundant. Before you throw your hands up in horror, let me just expand on that for a moment. I’m not saying that books are going to become irrelevant, or that we can do without them, or indeed that we should do without them. If you want read about a subject in detail then, absolutely, find some good books and read them to your heart’s content. But that’s different from doing research.

An AI tool will find material, present it back to students, who will then add their own creativity and understanding of the subject to create something new. As long as the content retrieved is of good quality it really shouldn’t matter if it comes from a book chapter, an academic essay, a YouTube video or a podcast. If I’m going to produce content on a subject I have an increasingly broad spectrum of ways in which I can get that content to my audience, and writing a book is only one way of being able to do that. With the increasing abilities of AI tools to take data from an ever wider range of sources, and to be able to package it up (or more likely, to allow the student to decide on the form in which the information is presented) books will, I suspect, have decreasing importance in the future.

What I care about here is that students learn how to do research. They need to understand that some information is good, whilst other material is dubious or biased, and how to check that. They need to be taught how to put the information together, what questions they should ask an AI tool to get an answer, how to assess that answer and rephrase their questions. They need to then be able to use their skills to look at the content that’s been created, assess it for accuracy, understand it, and learn from it. Some of those are existing skills, and others are ones that we are going to need to teach children really quickly—once we have learned them ourselves.

This is a huge shift in what, and how, we teach, but one that’s necessary. And if you’re uncomfortable about the idea, consider this: When all have access to tools that allow us to write content, what’s more important, the ability to just write it, or to be able to critically assess it, evaluate it and change it as appropriate? Finnish education authorities are already taking a lead in this area. Students are being taught how to identify false information. Media literacy is part of the national core curriculum in the country, starting in preschool. This should be a key element in the education system in every country in the world.

What to teach and not to teach

Schools need to stop teaching a raft of out of date skills. Unfortunately, for a lot of them, they’re unable to do that. They want to protect the existing paradigm. They’re scared and they don’t want to have to learn a bunch of new skills. What they have to realise is that they’re not teaching children to succeed, they’re teaching them skills that will no longer be valuable into the future. They’re teaching them to fail. Educators are going to have to make really hard choices in the near future. Media literacy cannot be shoehorned into an existing system; the system has to change. We are shortly going to be at the point where AI tools and devices are going to do instant translation for us, and I know that if I had to choose between teaching a child a foreign language or media literacy, I’m not going to hesitate for a second.

Everything has to change. Everything will change, and much faster than you would think possible. Search engines as we have known them for the last 20 years or so are going to become extinct by 2025. Human creativity is going to explode, not diminish, because the AI tools will let us do much more than we have been able to do in the past. New industries are going to be formed that make use of AI technology in ways we can’t conceive of at the moment. And that’s a good thing.

When we first started using the internet, none of us really had any idea as to how embedded into our lives it was going to become, and how it would change everything that we do. It’s going to be exactly the same with AI—it will become part of every app we use, every device we have access to, it will be in our pockets or on our wrist—and for the most part we won’t even realise it. This is not always going to be for the good. But we will have to figure that out on the way. We can try and regulate it, but that’s doomed to failure. Until we know what AI can do and where it’s taking us, we can’t do anything. You can’t regulate what you don’t know. You can’t stop it, just as you can’t stop the internet—it’s a one way ticket, like it or not.

I have seen people saying that if AI is doing everything for us, we will lose our creativity, and will become mindless consumers. I see absolutely no evidence of that. Access to cameras or Photoshop hasn’t diminished our ability to create visual content, they have enhanced it. I’ll readily admit that my skills in PowerPoint design are not the greatest; I can produce what I need and it’s good enough. With new tools I can get an interested, vibrant and exciting presentation. But—and this is the point—it doesn’t stop me adding to the presentation, changing it around, thinking, “Oh, that’s a nice feature, what else can I add in”. My limited ability to do interesting things in PowerPoint is because I don’t have the technological skills—AI can do all that basic stuff for me, freeing me up to consider different designs and approaches I can do more precisely because AI can turn my ideas and thoughts into something more exciting on the screen. The barrier was the technology and AI has removed that for me to let my imagination run wild.

Apprehension is fine, we all have it. When we see something new, with all of the implications behind it, yes it can be scary. However, that shouldn’t stop you. Appreciate the possibilities that are available, and embrace them. Yes, this means change, but that’s not a bad thing. Harvard University has recently announced that it’s going to be providing generative AI as a teaching resource to all its students in certain courses. They have said that they want to simulate a 1:1 student to teacher ratio, while at the same time support the different ways that students want to learn. This isn’t limiting education, it’s expanding it. This isn’t threatening jobs, it’s allowing teachers to do more in different ways. It’s changing education, not removing it.

This new AI revolution promises to unfold for the foreseeable future, evolving in ways that we can’t even conceive, much like the continual transformation that we have witnessed with the advent of the internet. That is an absolute guarantee. You do not have a choice here: You simply have to embrace it, understand and then use it. By all means, be apprehensive, but temper that with an appreciation of how AI can change what we all do for the better.

And one final word, because I’m pretty sure I know that you’ve had a specific thought while reading this. So the answer to your unspoken question is “Yes, I did write this myself, I didn’t get an AI tool to do it for me”. However, what I did do was to describe the article to ChatGPT and ask it for some suggested titles. It gave me a variety of pretty good suggestions, but I particularly liked the alliterative approach of “apprehension” and “appreciation”, so I went with that, and used those terms in the piece. Does that make it hybrid? Feel free to ask yourself that question, and to answer it however you like. However, after that, ask yourself another question: Does it matter?