Oh Bard!

Sometimes bad timing and misfortune can end up having a massive negative impact on an organisation, as happened recently to Google who were in the process of launching their new AI tool, Bard. Hours before going live Reuters pointed out how it was not up to scratch as it saw an error in the promotional ad. It went viral and the effect was to wipe billions of dollars off Google’s shares. How did it happen?

A tiny factual error in one of Bard’s maiden answers to what was a seemingly banal question was the trigger for this catastrophic nose-dive. The question in question that Bard was asked was what new discoveries had been made from one of NASA’s mighty big space telescopes (the JWST) that could be told to a nine-year old. Bard replied that it took a picture of an exoplanet – which is a planet outside of the earth’s solar system. However, the human who tweeted pointed out that in fact it was another telescope that did this – one in Europe called a very large telescope (the VLT). It was meant to be an answer suitable for a young inquisitive child and most kids of that age would have not minded or would have blurted out it had made the mistake.

However, a bit of investigative work by a reporter at the Financial Times noted how Bard was technically correct since it was the JWST’s very first sighting of an exoplanet, but in the wider context of world knowledge, it was another telescope that had spotted it earlier. So a pedantic matter. Just goes to show how fickle the world is when it comes to its trust and faith in tech. Or maybe it was fuel thrown at the new AI race between Google and Microsoft.

Meanwhile OpenAI’s chatGPT (with Microsoft investment) continues to soar in terms of its credibility, popularity and capability. I have used it several times now and am amused and astounded by what it can accomplish in real time. Sure, it can get things wrong (for example, it did not know the Queen had died or when the King’s Coronation is because it is only trained on data before 2021) and its prose can be a bit bland and clunky but it has transformed how many pedestrian writing tasks can be achieved. Just like the spreadsheet changed how we do financial forecasting and the calculator offloaded the need for humans to do mental arithmetic in their heads anymore so, too, will this new generation of LLMs transform how we write.

In fact, millions of people, like me, have tried using ChatGPT in the last couple of months and are mightily impressed by how it can get them started writing an essay or report – overcoming that blank page syndrome. When I asked it to write some feedback that I could give for a graduate student report I was impressed by its fluid style and use of praise – almost as good and personalized as I could!

At the same time there are those who are worried that it will dumb us down or turn us into cheats, for example, students will increasingly use it to write their essays, reports and other assignments on their behalf. But why not? They can then be asked to read and spend time reflecting to how good ChatGPT’s answer is and how they can improve upon it. Instead of simply regurgitating what they find on Wikipedia or other online resources they could be asked to develop and hone their critical and analytical skills. And learn what makes for a good or poor argument, developing some metacognition skills in the process. Meanwhile, professors and teachers could use the next generation of ‘turnitin’ AI plagiarism tools that are starting to appear to detect how much they have changed the chatGPT answers. We can also begin to rethink our assignments and ways of providing feedback to students. In so doing, we can all learn to write better – be it generating and creating or assessing and providing feedback. Framing the new generation of AI in this way will enable all sorts of new possibilities for students (and teachers) to learn and teach with. As was said in the Google launch blurb Bard “can be an outlet for creativity, and a launchpad for curiosity.”

Funny how scientists love coming up with acronyms so much. Anyone want to guess what NASA, JWST, VLT, LLM and GPT stand for? Perhaps we could just ask Bard.

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