Not infrequently I am asked about my thoughts on AI and the future of technology more generally. Here are some thoughts.

In 1927, Charles Lindbergh was 25 years old when he flew solo across the Atlantic. It took him 33.5 hours to fly *The Spirit of St. Louis* from New York City to Paris. When he returned to the United States, he spent a year travelling the country promoting the wonders of flight. He said that he could envision a time when as many as 15 people could fly on a plane. In 1968 and at the age of 66, he met with the Apollo 8 crew the night before they flew to the moon. A few weeks later, the first Boeing 747 took to the air. In January 1970, the first 747 commercial flight (PanAm) took off with 335 passengers and 20 crew members. Lindbergh was 67 years old. Fifteen people, indeed.

If Lindbergh—a huge advocate for commercial flight—could not envision in his lifetime no more than 15 people on a plane, there is no hope for me in predicting the future of technology. But we can look backwards for any lessons that may help us as technology moves forward.

Calculators. I’m certain that math instructors who were in the classroom in the 1970s are laughing pretty heartily as we struggle to sort out AI’s impact on writing. “While the general public debated whether or not calculators should be allowed at school, educators were forced to grapple with how the devises (sic) would change math instruction” (Watters, 2015).

1975: National Advisory Committee on Mathematical Education recommended that starting in eighth grade, students should be able to use calculators in class, including on exams.

1980: National Council of Teachers recommended that calculators be used by all students regardless of grade level.

1983: The College Board okayed the use of calculators on the AP Calculus exam.

1984: The College Board changed their mind. Calculators were now banned, because it wasn’t fair to students who did not have a calculator.

1986: Connecticut required the use of calculators on state-mandated tests.

1992: New York followed Connecticut’s lead.

1994: The College Board mandated the use of calculators on the AP Calculus exam and allowed calculators for the SAT.

1997: California allowed the use of calculators on its state-mandated tests.

“In some ways, it’s difficult to separate debates about the usage of calculators in the classroom from debates about math education writ large. Much of the ‘Math Wars’ of the late 1980s (and onward… still) involved how much technology was appropriate, what technology would mean for the acquisition of basic math skills, and what – thanks to new technologies – math education should or could look like (what math curriculum should or could like at the K-12 level, as well as what it should or could like in college.)” (Watters, 2015).

With apologies to the author of that paragraph, we can seamlessly replace calculators and math with AI and writing.

“In some ways, it’s difficult to separate debates about the usage of calculators **[AI]** in the classroom from debates about math **[writing]** education writ large. Much of the ‘Math **[AI]** Wars’ of the late 1980s **[mid 2020s]** (and onward… still) involved how much technology was appropriate, what technology would mean for the acquisition of basic math **[writing] **skills, and what – thanks to new technologies – math **[writing]** education should or could look like (what math **[writing]** curriculum should or could like at the K-12 level, as well as what it should or could like in college.)” (Watters, 2015).

Unfortunately, the math educators never did completely get it sorted. “You can read the comments on almost any story today about math education and see these same, long-running debates: fears that students’ computational abilities will be ruined by calculators/computers/cellphones, that students will become too reliant upon machines, that they won’t be able to learn from their errors and teachers won’t be able to help them, that they won’t learn basic skills” (Watters, 2015). And so appears to be our future with AI.

We have managed to learn to live with technology, such as calculators, GPS, word processors (now called apps), and the Internet. What they all have in common, including calculators, is that we cannot turn off our brains.

We cannot blindly follow what our calculators (okay, calculator apps) or our spreadsheets or our statistical tools tell us. We have to have some idea of what the output will look like. If my calculations tell me that I owe the IRS $15 or $15,000,000, something has gone horribly wrong.

Stories abound of people who blindly followed their GPS down boat ramps and into water (such as these two incidents in Hawaii, and this one in British Columbia) or took GPS-suggested alternate routes when interstate highways were closed due to snow (such as these). And then, as an example of garbage in/garbage out, drivers can end up in the wrong city if they enter the wrong city name in their GPS (such as these tourists). We have to keep our brains engaged: does this route make sense? If I see water directly in front of me, does it make sense to drive into it? If the major highways are closed because of snow, does it make sense that a rural road would be clear of snow? If I’m in Chicago and want to drive to Portland, Maine, does it make sense that my GPS map tells me to drive west? Could it be that I inadvertently told my map app that I wanted to go to Portland, Oregon?

Every instructor who gives writing assignments has examples of students who blindly accepted whatever their word processing program told them to do. My favorite was the student who was trying to write a paper about “concentration” but however they misspelled it, their app told them to use “constipation.” It took me a couple pages to figure out what was going on. It may or may not be surprising how well those words can work in the same sentence. Of course, we have the same problem with autocorrect in our text messages. Again, we have to keep our brains engaged: do these sentences make sense?

In my final example, we have the Internet. When it first appeared, there was much gnashing of teeth about students not learning to do research using library sources. They could just Google it. Google and library databases are both useful tools, but, again, we cannot turn off our brains. Ultimately the question is “can I trust what this source is telling me?” In education, we still hammer into students the need to evaluate their sources. Just because someone says it on TikTok does not make it true (such as these examples of bad financial advice and these example of bad medical advice). And just because someone does it on TikTok does not make it a good idea (such as these TikTok challenges).

I imagine this will be our future with AI and writing. We cannot turn off our brains. We have to have the skills to evaluate what AI tells us—and the motivation to do so.

Reference

Watters, A. (2015, March 12). *A brief history of calculators in the classroom*. Hack Education. http://hackeducation.com/2015/03/12/calculators