Is generative artificial intelligence (GenAI) really destroying writing?
There’s been a widespread argument that the technology is allowing high school and college students to easily cheat on their essay assignments. Some teachers across the country are scrambling to ban students from using writing applications like OpenAI’s ChatGPT, Bard AI, Jasper and Hugging Face, while others explore ways to integrate these emerging technologies.
But things are getting a little too panicky too quickly.
While media reports have cast GenAI writing bots as the “death” of high school and college writing, knee-jerk responses to these emerging technologies have been shortsighted. The public is failing to see the bigger picture — not just about GenAI writing bots but about the very ideas of GenAI and writing in general.
When it comes to technology and writing, public cries about moral crises are not new. We’ve heard the same anxious arguments about every technology that has ever interacted with the production and teaching of writing — from Wikipedia and word processors to spell checkers, citation generators, chalkboards, the printing press, copy machines and ballpoint pens.
Remember the outrage over Wikipedia in the early 2000s, and the fear that students might use it to avoid conducting “actual research” when writing? Teachers and educational institutions then held meetings and filled syllabi with rules banning students from accessing Wikipedia.
Within a decade of Wikipedia’s introduction, however, the educational outrage has dissipated and the use of the site in classroom assignments is now commonplace. This is proof that all technologies — not just digital or writing technologies — have two possible paths: either they become ubiquitous and naturalized into how we do things, or they become obsolete. In most cases, they become obsolete because another technology surpasses the old technology’s usefulness.
GenAI writing bots are not destroying writing; they are reinvigorating it. Ultimately, we shouldn’t be so concerned about how students might use ChatGPT or Bard AI or the others to circumvent hegemonic educational values. Instead, we should be thinking about how we can prepare our students and the future workforce for ethically using these technologies. Resisting these changes in defense of wholesale nostalgia for how we learned or taught writing is tantamount to behaving like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand.
So, what will come next with GenAI for writing?
Right now, it is clear that ChatGPT can produce fundamental writing that is generic. However, as companies develop algorithms that are discipline-specific, GenAI writing bots will start building more complex abilities and producing more dynamic writing. Just as “Social Media Marketing Manager” evolved into a now-familiar job as online commerce emerged, so too will we see “Prompt Engineer” (someone who can prompt GenAI to deliver useful outcomes) become a prevalent career path throughout the next decade.
For example, think about the U.S. outdoor recreational industry, which accounts for 1.9 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and amounts to about $454 billion per year. This is an industry — like many others — that relies on the ability to rapidly produce nearly endless content in the form of magazines, product descriptions, travel guides, advertisements, videos, reviews and social media posts. When this industry further develops GenAI writing bots specific to its needs, or when tech companies develop these bots and sell access to them, the bots will evolve to produce the writing that is both needed and effective. Students will need to know how to write the prompts that will guide GenAI-driven content in those industries.
Subscription GenAI services will inevitably become the norm for much of the content produced for commercial consumption, and many companies will build their own writing bots for their specific and private needs. Companies like Jasper AI are banking on this, and with nearly 1,000 new GenAI platforms launching each week, the model appears to be heading toward subscription-based access to proprietary GenAI platforms. Thus, schools and colleges will need to develop new ways to understand the role of writing in education, surrender ingrained beliefs about teaching writing, and teach students how to operate in the GenAI-supported environments of the future.
Fortunately, not all educational institutions or teachers are jumping aboard the anti-AI bandwagon. Institutions like the University of Florida (UF), with its forward-thinking AI Initiative, are using this moment of technophobic reaction to critically engage the role of AI in all teaching and learning situations. Rather than imposing restrictions, UF administrators are holding roundtables and symposia about how to address GenAI writing bots in classrooms.
When it comes down to it, GenAI is not the enemy of writers or writing instructors. It is just a new technological teaching tool, and we can learn something from it if we listen.
Sidney I. Dobrin, Ph.D., is a professor and the chair of the Department of English at the University of Florida. He is the director of the Trace Innovation Initiative, a member of the Florida Institute for National Security, and an Adobe Digital Thought Leader. He is also the author of “Talking About Generative AI: A Guide for Educators and AI and Writing.”
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