Impact is imminent

With AI threatening to ramp up the plagiarism arms race, we must plan for the future – and deal with the present

July 8, 2021
Illustration of flip-top head with data streaming out the top, illustrating artificial intelligence impact on higher education
Source: Getty

How good, and how bad, could the impact of artificial intelligence be?

It would take a special sort of ostrich to look at the impact of even today’s relatively narrow AI and conclude that the superhuman iterations coming down the track will not have a monumental effect.

At the extremes of this debate, technology that today is helping to save lives by spotting invisible cancers is discussed as a source of tomorrow’s apocalypse.

Thankfully, not everyone is convinced that human extinction is the endgame. Indeed, when Times Higher Education surveyed 50 Nobel laureates in 2017 and asked what they considered to be the biggest threat to mankind, only two said AI (environmental degradation topped the list – a global grand challenge that AI may have a role in helping us to mitigate).

Nor are the predictions that automation will eliminate a catastrophic proportion of jobs universal.

AI will inevitably take some tasks from humans (think lorry drivers), and concentrate even more power and wealth in the hands of the tech giants, but technological advance tends to create jobs as well as destroy them, so who knows what the net effect will be?

In this context, the endless crystal-ball gazing about AI’s impact is misguided if its purpose is an accurate forecast of our future. But it is useful in one respect: concentrating minds on the bear traps to avoid in the risky path ahead.

As Toby Walsh, Scientia professor of artificial intelligence at UNSW Sydney, wrote in THE in 2019: “We don’t have to worry about technological determinism. How the world looks in 2062 is very much the product of the choices we make today. However, we are at a critical junction in history where there’s a lot to play for. As a result, we all need to start making choices so that everyone can benefit from this industrial revolution.”

In our cover story this week, we consider the implications of AI for education, and in particular for assessment and academic integrity.

Cheating is already big business – both in terms of the essay mills and their ilk and the multibillion-pound industry that has sprung up to combat it.

During the pandemic, there have been shifts, with the rise of online proctoring tools that are starting to automate an old process. (Although in a recent THE article, the CEO of one digital-proctoring business conceded that the AI-only approach adopted by some when Covid-19 hit “was never going to be an effective substitute for human monitoring”.)

Other challenges of academic integrity long predate the pandemic, and the view may be that widely used tools have allowed universities to keep a lid on plagiarism. But the arms race continues, and the next front, according to experts we speak to, is a daunting one as AI takes on a greater role in assisting the cheats, and the likes of Turnitin look for new ways to counteract it.  

Others argue that it is a mistake to look at this through a narrow lens of technology, and that the answer is to focus on the human relationships that underpin university education.

As one scholar of digital studies puts it: “Ultimately, all these companies – the cheating tech and the anti-cheating tech – frustrate those positive relationships.”

Also important, it is suggested, is a willingness to evolve – to avoid clinging to particular forms of assessment if our technology-assisted lives leave them outmoded.

On the cheating question, there appears to be gathering momentum within the UK for legislation to try to curtail what has become an increasingly high-profile problem for universities.

In our news pages, we report on the view that a private member’s bill tabled in the House of Lords that would seek to outlaw essay mills is building support, including from government.

If this proves to be a breakthrough for an issue that was addressed in the last Conservative manifesto, and which has had strong support from the former universities and science minister Chris Skidmore, in particular, then it would be a welcome development.

AI may transform the debate around academic integrity in due course, and is already having an impact in some respects. But essay mills exist in the here and now, and dealing with the problems we have is as important as worrying about those we may face down the road.

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