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What is ChatGPT and which schools have banned it?

Artificial intelligence service ChatGPT is pictured on a computer in Salt Lake City on Wednesday in this photo illustration.

Artificial intelligence service ChatGPT is pictured on a computer in Salt Lake City on Wednesday in this photo illustration. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — OpenAI's latest release of its ongoing artificial intelligence project, ChatGPT, can do some astonishing things and the query-driven system is causing jaws to both drop, and flap, depending on how the output of the super-smart super-bot is impacting any particular human's day-to-day world.

Right now, educators are having some of the strongest reactions to the system and it's thanks to ChatGPT's ability to construct term papers and essays in moments that may be extremely hard for any teacher to detect. But, as is often the case with fast-advancing technology, someone else has followed quickly behind with a workaround that will help root out this new level of machine-executed digital plagiarism.

What is ChatGPT?

In case you've missed it, ChatGPT is part of a new generation of AI systems that can converse and generate readable text on demand based on what they've learned from a vast database of digital books, online writings and other media, per The Associated Press.

Unlike a search engine response to a question, which simply points you to the answer where it already lives on the internet, ChatGPT generates its own original answers based on all the information it has already ingested and assessed. Thus, while Google isn't going to help you write a sonnet in the style of, say, Hunter S. Thompson, ChatGPT will easily churn that out for you and in just a matter of moments.

What's driving all the hubbub now is that while ChatGPT is just the latest iteration of a series of AI system releases from the Microsoft-controlled startup OpenAI, it's the first one that's been publicly available, and for free to boot.

Author unknown?

A growing number of schools are banning the use of ChatGPT on their own networks thanks to fears that the system is just too good and teachers will not be able to detect an AI-authored assignment from one written by a student. While reviewers have noted ChatGPT output is rife with errors across subject areas, it can perform at a very high level when it comes to churning out commentary.

On Wednesday, Forbes shared a list of schools that have taken action in hopes of stifling the nefarious use of ChatGPT for schoolwork:

  • A representative for Seattle Public Schools told Geekwire the district banned ChatGPT from all school devices, citing the district "does not allow cheating and requires original thought and work from students."
  • The Los Angeles Unified School District was one of the first districts to block the site on Dec. 12 — a spokesperson told the Washington Post the ban was put in place to "protect academic honesty."
  • New York City Public Schools (the largest school district in the country) banned ChatGPT in early January, due to concerns over cheating and that the tool doesn't help "build critical-thinking and problem-solving skills," Jenna Lyle, the deputy press secretary of the New York City Department of Education, said in a statement.
  • Local Washington, D.C. news station WTOP reported Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia banned ChatGPT on all county-issued devices in January.
  • According to FOX Business, public schools in Alabama's Montgomery County have blocked access to the site as well, and officials are mapping out "guidance for teachers and staff as it relates to readiness in their classrooms."

Turnabout is fair play

Princeton University senior Edward Tian had been studying earlier versions of OpenAI's artificial intelligence system for a couple years before ChatGPT became public. He told NPR the system represented a turning point for what technology is capable of, and it's one that is both astounding and ominous.

"I think we're absolutely at an inflection point," Tian said. "This technology is incredible. I do believe it's the future. But, at the same time, it's like we're opening Pandora's Box. And we need safeguards to adopt it responsibly."

Tian said he was plagued by misgivings about how ChatGPT could be misused and over a recent holiday break at home with his family in Toronto, he came up with an idea for a helpful tool.

Tian already had the know-how and even the software on his laptop to create such a program, per NPR. Ironically, this software, called GitHub Co-Pilot, is powered by GPT-3, the precursor to ChatGPT. With its assistance, Tian was able to create a new app within three days.

On Jan. 2, Tian released his app, GPTZero. It basically uses ChatGPT against itself, checking whether "there's zero involvement or a lot of involvement" of the AI system in creating a given text.

A website for GPTZero puts it this way: "Humans deserve to know the truth."

While Tian said he had humble expectations about a response, the app has generated an explosion of interest, and downloads.

Open the pod bay doors, HAL

The launch of ChatGPT has spawned countless internet rumors and conspiracies including predictions that the system puts humanity on the cusp of a "singularity" event, where a computer program transcends human intelligence, leading to all manner of unpredictable mayhem and madness.

But OpenAI CEO Sam Altman has discounted these fears on numerous occasions, pointing to both the opportunities ChatGPT's advancements represent as well as warning against overblowing, or over-interpreting, what it all means.

"ChatGPT is incredibly limited, but good enough at some things to create a misleading impression of greatness," Altman wrote in a December tweet. "It's a mistake to be relying on it for anything of import right now. It's a preview of progress; we have lots of work to do on robustness and truthfulness."

OpenAI is also reportedly working on its own version of a detection tool that can be applied to output from ChatGPT. The work brings to mind the famous test devised in 1950 by Alan Turing for determining whether a machine has matched or surpassed the intelligence of humans: whether it can fool an interrogator into thinking they are communicating with another person.

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