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On the last day of the old year, it’s time to look ahead, with at least a look back, at what technology will do to our minds.

I was struck by the effects of technology on my own profession, teaching. When I started, the computers that existed were mainframes somewhere “downtown”. Nowadays, students and teachers can work on their mobile phones.

One of my students is a lovely young lady who barely speaks English. She is shy and speaks in a very small voice. Nevertheless, it makes for superior written work. I was puzzled. Was she cheating, and what does cheating even mean today?

This year, I’m using an app called GoGuardian that lets me see what’s on the screens of district-issued laptops.

I learned that this young woman takes the online text assigned to her and uses Google Translate to put it into Spanish. She reads it, then writes a response in Spanish and translates it into English. Because she’s quite bright, she says smart things.

I hope she will learn English better, but I only have five months left to teach her, and I hope the artificial intelligence translation will be a tool for her improvement.

Well, I use it too. Although I have rudimentary Spanish, I sometimes type a sentence or two into Google for translation when I want to communicate with non-English speaking parents. The more I use it, however, the more Spanish I learn, which is why I’m not too concerned about motivated kids using AI tools.

My Kindle e-reader and iPhone allow me to both tap a word I’m reading and get a translation, definition, or link to an article about it. For example, this very morning I was reading Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush”. It starts at a copse gate. I have read the poem before in books and I must say that I have never consulted the dictionary to find out what coppice means. So I hit the word.

It turns out that a coppice is a way to manage trees by relying on them growing from stumps. New growth can be harvested depending on the growth rate, five or six years for birch and fifty years for oak. Sometimes a row of copses provides a boundary, and thus the need for the gate. Well, I almost hit my three points and ten and I didn’t know it.

In the 1970s, a roommate of mine – a student of Rice and a bit of a moron – was talking about how calculators would make math work difficult without them. He said, “What happens if you leave your calculator at home? I suggested that if doing complex calculations was important, he should be less thoughtless about his business.

During my brief stint as a substitute in a physics class, I learned that the online textbook included calculating devices. You still have to understand how to pose a problem, otherwise the calculator gives you an absolutely precise but totally meaningless and inaccurate solution.

For centuries, clerks have learned to write what is called a clean copy for legal or documentary purposes. You can still see it if you go to the pedigree records. It was a standardized calligraphy, and it was important that the documents were legible.

Today, most people type or even speak their text, and if that’s important to you, you can change the font. Simply put, calligraphy, while it might be nice, isn’t that important anymore.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t be able to do without technology. While calculators are unlikely to disappear, the possibility of an enemy attacking our online networks is real.

Junior officers need to be able to navigate or lay down artillery without the technology an enemy could attack, but accountants and bankers are unlikely to really need to manually calculate amortization schedules.

Aided by technology, I watched the students research the stories and poems I assigned. I don’t really mind if kids go online to learn what other people say about symbolism in a Robert Frost poem, but I’ll be sure next semester to include more difficult to research works.

There is a new app called Chat GPT3 that will research and write plausible essays on a variety of topics. What would it mean to cheat, what is original research, and can we trust what we read? This caused a lot of buzz and consternation.

I downloaded the app this morning, and that will be the subject of my next column.




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