ChatGPT and The End Of The World

For several years, the great debate about so-called artificial intelligence has been whether or not it will end the world as we know it. The answer is in: Yes it will, and in the most efficient and literal sense. No, it may not lead to the aggressive takeover of the planet by an out-of-control army of conscious and mean-spirited robots — although it may. But nothing so entertaining will be required to achieve the same effect in practice. For ending the world as we know it requires, in practice, nothing more dramatic than ending the knowing of the world. And as we can see very clearly from its earliest stages, the AI revolution is unquestionably going to achieve this, i.e., universal ignorance, and achieve it in the most brilliant way possible, namely in the guise of universal knowledge. To understand my meaning, and the seriousness of the problem, you need only look at the limited but straightforward example that is before us all right now, as we speak: the academic effects of AI information and writing tools.

The most famous AI tool of universal copyright obliteration and intellectual retardation, ChatGPT (Great Plagiarism Technology?), has quickly become to the realm of killing human learning and self-development what Kleenex was to disposable tissues, namely the brand name used interchangeably with the product itself. This technology, and its competing kin throughout the internet, have almost instantly washed away much of the impetus for, and therefore the interest in, striving to develop the knowledge and skills without which “the world as we know it,” which is to say the world founded on, and shared through, human language, would not exist. When the thought and sweat we all have to struggle through to develop the language facility and subtlety needed to build bridges between our own minds and those of our contemporaries, not to mention those of our greatest ancestors, have been obviated for all mankind by the (literally) mind-numbing efficiency of artificial tools that form and deliver pre-established language for us, then the world — the history, wisdom, mystery, and revelation of the human soul, delivered through the mists of ages and held together by nothing but the delicate and divine thread of the logos weaving through all of us as civilized beings — that world whose intelligible reality we owe almost entirely to our advanced communication skills, will cease to exist. Which effectively means that we will cease to exist. Which, in turn, means that we will become nothing but dispensable conduits or receptacles for the artificial input of AI information dispensers, and thus ourselves artificial beings, for all intents and purposes — which is to say that we will no longer have, nor even possess the capacity to form, “intents and purposes” of our own.

The effects of the digital revolution on the production and devolution of modern entertainment (film and music most clearly) are catastrophic and obvious, and have been expanding exponentially for many years. Furthermore, the effects of this degradation on the minds of young people, specifically as relates to their interest in, and capacity for, the development of intellectual curiosity and aesthetic taste, is already being catalogued in a variety of contexts. But as a university teacher most of whose classes are focused on developing written and verbal communication skills, and whose class materials are primarily concerned with issues related to human happiness, psychology and morality, modern education, and the nature and development of language itself, I am witnessing firsthand, in real time, the effects of our newest step into the brave new world, this Great Plagiarism Technology, within that realm which used to call itself, with some legitimacy and dignity, higher education. The problem was already obvious last year in my advanced essay writing class, within months of the release of ChatGPT; but this year it has become a crisis.

The crisis, to be clear, is not simply the outright annihilation of the time-honored concept of academic honesty, and the resulting impossibility of fair grading (although these are serious concerns too, of course), but rather the general intellectual laziness that this technology is encouraging among young people. The AI marketing apparatus, which has instantaneously insinuated itself into the self-understanding and mission statements of the academy itself (on the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” principle), much as pharmaceutical companies have insinuated themselves into the way the art of medicine is taught and practiced from the ground up, is aggressively encouraging students to believe that they do not need to use their own minds actively anymore, and indeed that such active self-development is pass√©, since all the knowledge they will ever need is already at their fingertips online — except, of course, the only knowledge that ultimately matters, namely the knowledge of how to seek one’s self-development, which knowledge no artificial intellect can provide on one’s behalf, and which therefore, as a matter of corporate, academic, and public policy, is to be summarily tossed down the memory hole in the names of progress, profit, and power.

It is frightening to think of what the future will look like when an entire generation of young people has unlearned the habit of even trying to form their own thoughts and to communicate with their own words.¬†Above all, as a teacher who has enjoyed watching various individuals experience the pleasure of developing this ennobling, humanity-defining habit over the years, I feel sorry for today’s students, who will never even know what they have lost compared to their predecessors — including even their predecessors of a very few years ago — the best-natured of whom worked so hard to develop genuine skills and independent thinking, and felt so proud of their achievements, regardless of level. Today’s students may never earn those skills or feel that pride. That may the saddest personal effect of this situation — the situation, you will recall, being the end of the world as we know it.

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