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As the fall semester approaches, professors are wondering how they should respond to the use of AI, especially ChatGPT, both in and outside the classroom. I have been mulling over this question since OpenAI launched the chatbot last November. Like many, I felt frustrated and confused. Should I ignore the new technology? Ban it? Should I punish students for using it? I concluded that I wasn’t going to waste time disciplining students who resort, or may have resorted, to AI. The algorithm that is supposed to detect cheating is not entirely reliable, at least not yet, and it can be difficult in some cases to identify whether a text is written by ChatGPT. As such, it seems impractical to enforce certain policies at this time. But this does not mean that students who cheat will not suffer the consequences of their actions.

Philosopher Günther Anders called the embarrassment and confusion one might feel in the face of new technology “Promethean shame,” as we are confronted by the possibility that our own instruments, our own inventions, can outperform and even replace us. Anders was writing in the 1950s before the cybernetic revolution, yet his analysis has never been more prescient. In Hollywood, writers and actors strike to ensure that they will not be replaced by AI. Just as machines threaten to replace material labor, the AI revolution threatens to replace cognitive labor.

What is to be done? I have a tentative answer. Any pedagogical problem is a philosophical problem in nuce and deserves a philosophical response. First, we must realize that AI, and ChatGPT, threatens more than our jobs: It threatens our humanity.

ChatGPT concerns the essence of learning, which, along with reading and writing, pertains to the realm of experience. Experience is transformative: If I climb a mountain, I will not be the same person after my experience as before. I will have gone through a physical and mental effort and have presumably taken some risks. (“Experience” shares the same root as “peril.”) When Nietzsche wrote Zarathustra, when he climbed that metaphysical mountain, he took a risk and endangered his health, which was poor. Likewise, the reader of Nietzsche, by climbing up that philosophical poem, risks losing all points of reference. To read (and to think and write) is to flirt with the abyss. When we read a monumental book, we are not guided by GPS. We are in uncharted territory and must surrender ourselves to the guidance of the author.

Likewise, the writer must confront the blank page and endure the pains of writer’s block. We all have experienced the anxiety of beginnings. When novelist Claude Simon was asked, during a trip to the Soviet Union in 1987, what the main problems that preoccupied him were, he answered: “The first one: starting a sentence; the second one: to continue it; the third one: to complete it.” That we humans speak is at once dreadful and extraordinary. The task of the writer is to convey this wonder, which is no small feat.

ChatGPT allows us to delegate thinking and writing to an algorithm. One can bypass the anxiety of the blank page, the overwhelming and paralyzing promise of endless possibility. Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben contends that the scrivener Bartleby, from Herman Melville’s short story, stands as a figure of the writer. The writer is the one who “prefers not to,” as if writing contained within itself the possibility not to write, the pure potentiality of writing. In Modernist art, blank canvases point to this idea of pure potentiality.

The wonder of creating almost ex nihilo, of not knowing what phrase, what form, sound, or color will arise from the nebulous cloud of potency, is part of the thrill of intellectual and poetic experience, of learning and thinking.  I will thus tell my students, this fall semester, that if they use ChatGPT, they will perhaps get good grades. But they will impoverish their experience. They will, in other words, live by proxy, and outsource their own inner life to a machine. Such a life will be, to paraphrase Theodor Adorno’s epigraph in Minima Moralia, a “life [that] does not live.”

Bruno Chaouat is professor of French and Jewish studies at the University of Minnesota.

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Image by AlexiusHoratius licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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