It’s not magic, it’s business

Watching AI generate text for the first time can seem like magic. However, when it comes down to it, it’s not magic, it’s business – and a hugely profitable one at that.

Since the weekend, there have been numerous articles published reporting on the firing of Sam Altman, former CEO of OpenAI, and dozens more speculating why and what will happen as a result.
Just this morning, the latest development is that Altman has been hired by Microsoft, a major investor in OpenAI, and that 95% of Open AI’s employees are threatening to follow him.
News reports about Sam Altman and his firing at Open AI as at 21 November 2023

The implosion of OpenAI, the company that burst into public consciousness late in 2022 with the launch of ChatGPT has apparently taken everyone by surprise. ChatGPT had seemingly taken over the world in 2023, with over 180 million users using it weekly, – no one would have expected a company so much in the ascendant to be potentially annihilated so quickly.

However…this post is not about Sam Altman or OpenAI or ChatGPT.

This post is about what the events of the past few days must remind us as responsible and forward thinking educators; that the focus should never be on the tool or the platform – it must be on the purpose of the task, the critical selection of the right tool for the job and the cultivation of digital literacies that develop transferable knowledge and skills that enable a deeper understanding of how and why platforms and tools operate the way that they do.

Over the past few months, conversations about ChatGPT I have read in various social media groups have worried me, because I have noticed a tendency for the focus to be on how to use the tool to achieve specific outcomes, rather than on bigger picture questions such as how do we talk to students about the influence of Generative AI on learning, work and everyday life and how do students feel about the implications of having this growing generative capability at their fingertips? I’m not suggesting that discussions about how to use new tools and platforms are wrong, however the focus upon operational skills must not overtake opportunities for deeper learning. We have seen this realisation in the Maths classroom – whereas once the focus was on memorising the formula and getting the right answer, now teachers emphasise understanding the reasons why the formulas work, and the underpinning mathematical principles that allow students to apply and solve problems across a range of contexts. Simply teaching students how to get an answer out of ChatGPT is not fitting them for effective engagement with an algorithmically shaped culture; it merely teaches them how to operate a tool at a particular stage of it’s evolution.

The firing of Sam Altman and the ensuing events have not only shown us that even the most successful platforms can rapidly devolve; they have also demonstrated that when it comes down to it, almost every one of the tools and platforms that we have come to rely upon are not designed for users – they are designed to generate profit. Decisions will be made by boards, by shareholders and by investors that will be guided by the almighty dollar far more frequently than by any other reason. While OpenAI appeared to have an organisational structure that aimed to keep development untainted by the profit motive, the collapse over the weekend and Altman’s move to Microsoft show us that in the end, money talks. Just as Google quietly removed it’s motto ‘Don’t be evil’ from its code of conduct in 2018, and the popular mantra ‘If you aren’t paying for it, you are the product‘ continues to be bandied around, there appears to be very little in the way of altruism in Silicon Valley and other development hot spots.

Ethical and informed use of digital technologies must be an essential cornerstone of how we approach the use of tools and platforms in learning and teaching. I know it seems like just one more thing – but if you are a regular reader, you will know where this is going – but your qualified Teacher Librarian can help. This is an area where TLs and teachers can work collaboratively to develop rich learning opportunities that not only build skills but also awareness of the implications of tools such as generative AI and indeed, so many of the digital platforms and tools that we now use day to day. The focus should be upon critical selection and evaluation of platforms and tools, ethical and informed use to protect privacy and the cultivation of transferable skills that will travel with the student across many different contexts – building the fluency and confidence they will need to be active and responsible contributors to a society that is so rapidly transforming.

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