When Doris Wessels logged into ChatGPT for the first time, it was a "magical moment," she told DW. That's coming from a professor of business informatics who has researched artificial intelligence (AI) and its effects on education for years.
It was only a few days after ChatGPT, an AI-powered chatbot, had been released to the public on November 30, 2022, by a company called OpenAI.
Anyone can interact with ChatGPT via an internet browser. You type in questions or commands and ChatGPT responds (to almost anything). Within five days of its release, 1 million people had signed up to use it.
The claim is that ChatGPT can explain, program and argue with humanlike efficiency.
Wessels, who is based at Kiel University of Applied Sciences, is amazed by the technology. "It's like entering another world," she said.
Mike Sharples, an emeritus professor at the Open University in the United Kingdom, has seen a few such "major breakthroughs" during his 40–year career in artificial intelligence — including a precursor to ChatGPT called GPT-3.
Sharples warns that "GPT democratizes plagiarism." Some students have been open about using the technology to help them write essays in perfect academic language. It's like free ghostwriting for everyone, but there are examples that show ChatGPT's responses can be factually incorrect.
Is ChatGPT a threat to university education?
ChatGPT can be used to write research papers. Sharples had the AI generate a scientific article that he said "could pass a first academic review."
This worries Wessels, who said universities were in danger of being left behind. On the one hand, there's the software industry, which is developing ever-more-powerful AI systems. And, on the other hand, there are the students, who are learning how to use AI in education faster than their teachers can keep up with the developments.
Students often learn about new AI technology rapidly in real time via social media and are keen to try new methods, while some academic staff and professors may be slower on the uptake, or set in their ways.
Wessels sees a "possible horror scenario" in which unsuspecting professors might think that they have done an excellent job of teaching if all their students submit error-free assignments — when, in fact, it's all down to ChatGPT or a similar system.
Too little data to assess the threat from ChatGPT
Debarka Sengupta, an AI expert based in New Delhi, has similar concerns.
"Everyone in India knows about ChatGPT," said Sengupta, who leads the Infosys Centre for Artificial Intelligence at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi.
Sengupta worries that academic standards could suffer if students start to depend on the technology. If they stop learning how to write essays themselves and use ChatGPT instead, Sengupta said, they could become "extremely incompetent and addicted."
But there is still far too little data to support such fears — ChatGPT has only been out for two months.
Sengupta said "plagiarism and cheating have always existed," and students' motivation to learn should not be underestimated.
Sharples added: "Students go to university to learn, not to cheat."
How AI chatbots can help students
Bernadette Mathew is one of Sengupta's students, and she is researching cancer growth for a PhD in biology.
Mathew's experiments generate large amounts of data that need to be analyzed, but that can't be done by hand. So she has been learning how to code to help her use computers to automate and speed up the process of analyzing the data — but learning to code left her struggling to keep up with her research.
Sengupta heard about Mathew's difficulties and introduced her to ChatGPT, and Mathew has found it to be a big help.
The chatbot explains what she doesn't understand about coding, it finds errors in her own coding, and sometimes Mathew lets it code for her.
Mathew said it works in "99%" of the time. The best part, she said, is that ChatGPT doesn't just do her work, but helps her to understand coding.
The AI makes her feel "empowered" to work independently, Mathew said.
"Chatting with ChatGPT is like chatting with a real person," Mathew added. "If I had known this earlier, I could have saved myself so much time and work."
Mathew said these chatbots would "revolutionize" the work of experimental biologists, allowing the researchers to focus on their research, rather than on having to learn how to code.
Wessels said ChatGPT could also help students in other areas. It can prompt them to write the difficult first words or first paragraph of an essay, for example, to get them past their "fear of the blank page."
Think of ChatGPT as the calculator in math
Daniel Lametti, a Canadian psycholinguist at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, said ChatGPT would do for academic texts what the calculator did for mathematics.
Calculators changed how mathematics were taught. Before calculators, often all that mattered was the end result: the solution. But, when calculators came, it became important to show how you had solved the problem — your method.
Some experts have suggested that a similar thing could happen with academic essays, where they are no longer only evaluated on what they say but also on how students edit and improve a text generated by an AI — their method.
Artificial intelligence is not all-intelligent
ChatGPT does not understand the essays it writes — it does not understand the meaning of the language. Like a parrot in a professor's office that listens to conversations and "parrots them," an AI chatbot merely processes and presents the language and facts that it has been fed. And that can lead to problems.
There are examples of ChatGPT texts in which the language reads as though it was written by an expert — but the text is factually incorrect.
So, as with other AI technologies, humans are still required to review and correct AI-generated texts. That editing is often complicated and requires real knowledge of a subject, and that could be graded at universities in the future.
The experts DW spoke with said the technology is not going away. Adapting to ChatGPT will be a challenge for teaching, they said, but it can also be an opportunity for universities to get better at educating and teaching.
And, Sengupta said, tech-savvy India will be particularly quick at making use of the opportunities that AI presents.
The article was originally written in German.