Artificial Intelligence, Authenticity, and the Soul of Writing

Fresno Bee, March 5, 2023

Maybe I wrote this column. Maybe artificial intelligence did it. Does it really matter?

I asked ChatGPT to write an essay on the ethics of artificial intelligence. ChatCPT is an artificial intelligence device that is all the rage. The AI did a pretty good job. Its prose lacks a point of view. But its grammar is impeccable. And it is quick. It wrote a decent essay in a matter of seconds, highlighting concerns about AI, including the problems of bias, privacy, accountability, transparency and security.

It failed to note the problem of authenticity and cheating. This has been a significant concern among educators. Students are already using AI to write papers and do homework. One ironic recent case involves a student who used AI to “write” a paper on ethical issues involving artificial intelligence.

The cheating problem has human solutions. Teachers will need to re-conceive how they assess student learning. Students already cut and paste, and download papers. Desperate students can even hire surrogate writers. AI will make this easier — and cheaper. In response, we should emphasize oral presentations and in-class writing.

A further concern involves the possibility that AI will contribute to the demise of journalism and other professions that involve the written word. In the near future, newspaper columns, political speeches, novels, and film scripts could be written by AI.

My ChatGPT session noted this under the general category of “employment and economic impact.” It explained, “AI has the potential to disrupt industries and change the nature of work.” This understates the problem. Writing is an essential part of human culture. More than the loss of jobs is at stake. Rather, this is about the role of writing in human life.

Human writing involves perspective and personality. The ChatGPT seems to have been programmed to avoid taking perspectives. When I asked it about abortion, it began with a disclaimer saying, “As an AI language model, I cannot take a moral stance on whether abortion is right or wrong, as this is a complex and deeply personal issue that involves a wide range of factors and perspectives.” It then laid out several concerns from multiple perspectives with regard to the ethics of abortion.

Something similar happened when I asked it about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Republican plans for Social Security reform, and whether Biden is a good president. After a disclaimer, it recounted arguments on various sides of these issues. But it did not offer an opinion. This is clearly a matter of programming. This particular AI was programmed to avoid taking a side. One wonder what might result if an AI were programmed differently. I’ll bet it would be easy to program a computer to churn out Republican or Democratic boiler plate.

What’s missing here is human judgment — and the accountability that comes along with authenticity. Good human writing involves more than merely laying out a list of facts. It is also a way of exposing one’s commitments and one’s soul. Opinionated writing assumes that the writer behind the prose stands for something. And we hold authors accountable for their words. This process of soulful writing is part of what philosophers call authenticity.

Authenticity involves responsibility and personal engagement. Words belong to people. And we judge persons in terms of what they say and write. Human writing conveys a sense of who the writer is, what they feel, and what they value. Writing moves us because we imagine real people behind the words, who suffer, enjoy, celebrate, or grieve.

This spiritual element is connected to style and voice. And so far as I can tell, ChatGPT has not been programed to have a style, a personality, or a “soul.”

And yet, when I asked it how Hemingway would describe a bullfight, it came up with a paragraph featuring the “wild fury” of a charging bull, with horns “glinting in the sun.” As far as I can tell, Hemingway never put it quite this way. But frankly the AI surprised me with its story-telling prowess.

And no doubt, AI will improve. In the not-too-far future, movies, novels and opinion columns may be written by artificial intelligence. As far you know, this column was written by a human. But how would you know? And why would it matter?

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From Wild Board Dung to Steroids, Athletes Cheat

Fiala on ethics: From wild boar dung to steroids, athletes cheat

 By Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee, Friday, Jan. 25, 2013 | 05:30 PM

It’s been a bad month for cheaters and liars in sports.

Lance Armstrong confessed to doping. Steroid-using baseball superstars were kept out of the Hall of Fame. And we learned that Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o was caught up in an elaborate hoax.

Fraud and mendacity are as old as athletic competition. Homer’s “Iliad” recounts cheating in a chariot race. Ancient charioteers also sought assistance from performance enhancers. Wild boar dung boiled in vinegar was one preferred potion. The emperor Nero even took the stuff, looking for a competitive edge. When Nero “competed” he won every event — in a falsified Olympiad set up to please his own vanity.

I discussed the recent athletic hogwash with Andrew Marden, the weekend sports anchor for KGPE (Channel 47). From Marden’s perspective, one of the biggest problems is the presence of big money in sports. Monetary rewards will tempt vainglorious and greedy athletes to cheat. The money spreads to the team, the agents and the league itself. The more an athlete wins, the more money everyone makes, tempting the organization to look the other way.

Marden also pointed out that we love stories of athletes overcoming adversity. We admire Te’o’s tenacity after his girlfriend’s death. We celebrate Armstrong’s ability to “live strong” after cancer. The narrative crumbles when we discovered that Te’o’s girlfriend never existed and Armstrong’s athletic performance was drug-assisted.

These stories become classically tragic when the conceited cheaters get their comeuppance. We like that part of the story, too: It satisfies our desire for vindication.

There’s a kind of relief that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemons weren’t voted into the Hall of Fame. And many are hoping that Armstrong’s confession to Oprah will lead to further repercussions.

Marden pointed out that public shame and moralistic requital is a weak punishment for a millionaire. Indeed, shameful misdeeds don’t seem to diminish an athlete’s earning potential. Consider Melky Cabrera, the baseball star who was given a 50-game suspension last summer for doping. Cabrera missed the Giants’ World Series victory. But he signed a $16 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. Apparently it’s not true that cheaters never prosper.

A further problem is that cheaters and liars seem to actually enjoy cheating and lying. The so-called “cheater’s high” is a sense of elation that comes from successfully getting away with pulling a fast one.

Effective cheats often don’t feel guilty. Instead they get a charge from taking advantage and not getting caught. The same sort of thrill might explain lying, stealing, marital infidelity or even negotiating a business deal. We feel powerful and alive when we outfox our opponents and trick others into taking our hogwash seriously.

The victorious cheater’s exhilaration might explain why cheaters are not very good at assessing their actual abilities and performance. A 2010 study by Zoe Chance, from the Harvard Business School, indicates that students who cheat on tests tend to lie to themselves about their own skills and intelligence. Cheaters overestimate their own abilities and intelligence. Cheaters predict that they will continue to perform well in the future, not acknowledging that their past achievement was a result of cheating.

That kind of confident self-deception can be an asset in some circumstances. Successful competitors need to be self-assured and poised — they can’t second-guess themselves or beat themselves up over failure. But that kind of resolute composure can easily become arrogance.

Armstrong admitted this in his interview with Oprah. He said, “My ruthless desire to win at all costs served me well on the bike but the level it went to, for whatever reason, is a flaw. That desire, that attitude, that arrogance.”

The cheater’s cool conceit combines with our gullible desire to believe a great story. This makes it easy for cheats to succeed — for a while. But the cheater’s fatal flaw is his own arrogant belief that he can keep getting away with it.

The truth eventually comes out, especially in stories that are too good to be true.

In the meantime we have to remain vigilant. Athletes are easily tempted to drink the wild boar dung.

And we gullible fans are often inclined to swallow their hogwash.

Teachers need, deserve support to do their jobs

Teachers need, deserve support to do their jobs

 By   Andrew Fiala

 Fresno Bee 2011-08-27

This summer, the Atlanta public schools were caught up in a cheating scandal that involved 44 schools and 178 educators. While the scope of the Atlanta scandal is appalling, such scandals are not new. Cheating scandals have plagued schools across the country for many years. If teachers cheat — either by coaching students or by erasing and correcting student answers — then we’ve got a serious problem. Even the most rigorous system of education is only as good as the educators who control it.

It is not difficult to imagine how the pressures of today’s high-stakes testing environment create a recipe for moral failure. In a low-performing school, in a context in which job security depends on easily manipulated standardized test scores, it is not surprising that some teachers are tempted to cheat.

This is no excuse for cheating. And we should establish safeguards to prevent cheating. But we also need to consider cheating as a symptom of an environment that is not conducive to moral development. If we expect teachers to teach better, we must change these conditions so that teachers can thrive.

I discussed these issues recently with Jack Benninga, the director of the Bonner Center for Character Education at Fresno State. According to Benninga, the key to moral schools is a safe, nurturing environment. Indeed, he argued that there is a connection between a supportive moral environment and academic achievement. Students learn better when they are not worried about being bullied or assaulted.

The same idea applies in the lives of teachers. Teachers teach better when they are provided appropriate support, mentoring and a sense of job security. Benninga pointed out that the moral and professional development of teachers depends upon a caring and humane environment. He explained, “A significant problem in schools today is that the environment is less focused on the development of children than on the skills needed to score well on high stakes tests. The U.S. Department of Education that mandated this approach in 2001 now realizes that its direction was a wrong turn for children and the adults who teach them.”

In a forthcoming article that he shared with me, Benninga and his co-authors conclude that classrooms today, “are tightly controlled, focused on students’ skill development, and are places where teachers are regularly monitored and publicly held accountable for student performance on high-stakes tests in just a few skill areas. This is not an atmosphere that encourages moral sensitivity or moral judgment.”

We do need to hold teachers accountable. Educational and behavioral standards do matter. The key to excellent performance in any field is to create conditions that make success possible. Cheating is more likely to happen when the stakes are high, when resources are scarce, and when caring and sustained mentoring relationships are replaced by a mechanical system of rewards and punishments.

This is true in sports, in science, in business and in academics — each of which have seen cheating scandals. Athletes use steroids and scientists fudge data. The individual athlete or scientist is obviously to blame. And so is the social environment that encourages winning at any cost or that demands “publish or perish.” We want athletes, scientists and teachers to strive for excellence. But competition leads to cheating when success is emphasized without proper training, mentoring and moral support.

Aristotle suggested that teachers deserve more honor than parents. Anyone can give birth to a child. But only an excellent teacher can prepare that child for a good life. And only an excellent society can train and nurture excellent teachers. Indeed, one test of a society’s well-being may be to consider how well it treats and trains its teachers.

Shrinking budgets and increasing class sizes do not help teachers; and they do not reflect well on our values as a society. Teachers do the essential job of nurturing the next generation. We need to create conditions that, in Benninga’s words, encourage educators to develop “moral sensitivity and moral judgment” as well as academic proficiencies.

Fortunately, there are many more excellent teachers than there are cheaters. Most teachers are sincerely dedicated to the academic achievement and moral development of the youngsters in their care. As the school year begins, let’s make sure that they have the support they need.