Computer power and human reason. Blogjune. 12/23


It’s minimalist Blogjune – one pic, one thing I did today.

It’s a public holiday for the pretend birthday of some bloke in England. I could even hear a 12 gun salute for it at midday.

What I did today:

I sat in the sunshine and caught up on reading for an AI Ethics bookclub I accidentally joined last month.

Looking over many of the earlier books the group had discussed, I saw several from which I had set readings for students (like Weapons of Math Destruction , Invisible Women and Made by Humans ), so it seemed like a good idea.

This month’s book is from 1976, written over a two year sabbatical by MIT computer scientist, Joseph Weizenbaum. Between 1964 and 1966, he created ELIZA, a very simple chatbot style program that used pattern matching to respond to typed enquiries. The DOCTOR routine imitated a Rogerian therapist, almost as a parody of this style of reflective questioning, where the therapist prompted the patient to speak using a rather scripted set of responses, mainly using the patient’s own words.

So, a session with ELIZA, or with a real Rogerian therapist, would start something like this:

PATIENT: Hello, can you help me with my problems?

DOCTOR: You want me to help you with your problems?

PATIENT: Yes, I am having problems with my mother.

DOCTOR: What about your mother is troubling you?

PATIENT: She doesn’t listen to me.

DOCTOR: Why do you think she doesn’t listen to you?

You can play with it for yourself on many sites like this ELIZA emulation at New Jersey Institute of Technology.

The program was demo-ed to many visitors to MIT to show what was possible. This use was relatable and understandable, while many other early computing uses required higher-level maths or computing to appreciate. But …. people bonded with ELIZA. They asked for privacy when they chatted with it. They were outraged that Weizenbaum suggested recording the data that was being input when many, many people used it overnight. Something a little different was happening. Even scientists who KNEW that this was a prediction tool following a script attributed far more humanity and effectiveness than was reasonable.

The book, Computer Power and Human Reason is Weizenbaum’s attempt to make sense of how we should progress into a world where people may have a tendency to ascribe wisdom or humanity to a set of probabilistic scripts. I am not far in, but this quote from his introduction has already jumped out and shaken me by the lapels:

The reaction to ELIZA showed me more vividly than anything I had seen hitherto the enormously exaggerated attributions an even well-educated audience is capable of making, even strives to make, to a technology it does not understand. Surely, I thought, decisions made by the general public about emergent technologies depends much more on what that public attributes to such technologies than on what they actually are or can or cannot do.

p. 7 Weizenbaum, J. (1976) Computer Power and Human Reason. W.H. Freeman and Company

Detecting contract cheating. Blogjune 8/23


It’s minimalist Blogjune – one pic, one thing I did today.

I investigate Academic Integrity cases for STEM degrees at work. Course Coordinators who suspect a breach add information to a database. Within five days, someone like me looks at their report, the student work, access logs from our learning management system and similar to work out whether there is enough evidence to start an investigation under the university’s academic integrity policy.

If I think there is, I make an appointment for a half hour interview with the student as part of my university’s educative approach. While a professional support person takes notes, and our meeting is videoed, I find out what the student understands about Academic Integrity. I explain that if everyone at the uni observes Academic Integrity then the student’s degree stays marketable. I then invite the student to explain the process and show evidence of how they produced the work.

I then decide the formal penalty. The most I can do is change the mark for the assessment to zero, so sometimes I prepare a case for a panel hearing where other penalties can be applied.

What I did today: Attended an all-day seminar at a posh hotel in the city, run by the university regulator, TEQSA . It was around detecting contact cheating, which is work completed by somebody else for a student. This is not necessarily only illegal paper mills, but covers third year students passing their work down to the second years, or somebody’s aunt writing their coding assessment.

Over the day, we considered whether commercial contract cheating is worse than non-paid cheating. We debated whether universities should revoke degrees if new ways of detecting cheating shows a graduate was faking their assessments.

And libraries got a look-in… with a hypothetical of a library staff member noticing that one student had booked out four study rooms, with a sign in Chinese appearing in the hallway offering “coaching and tutoring”.

The back of a blank postcard sitting on a laptop.

Today’s pic is the back of the postcard we all wrote to ourselves at the end of the session outlining an action we will take. The organisers will mail it to us in three weeks. It’s also a nifty way to get session feedback

The best kind of cats… Blogjune 7/23


… are shoulder cats. I always wanted one. Now I walk from room to room with something small and friendly perched like a parrot.

A woman smiling at a small grey cat perched on her shoulder.

It’s minimalist Blogjune – one pic, one thing I did today.

What I did today: So very, very much work. For many, many hours. It’s the last week of a 10 week study period, so I am actively teaching, while finalising marks and projects. I am also setting up for the three courses I teach in Study Period 4, which starts in 2 weeks… AND planning a week of annual leave in the middle. Oh, and coped with an internet outage for 40 minutes that was only restored 10 mins before I gave a Zoom class.

CSS/JavaScript and cultural safety warning. Blogjune 6/23


It’s minimalist Blogjune – one pic, one thing I did today.

I keep forgetting to take photos, which is a pity because today was gloriously sunny and I went walking at lunchtime.

So, tonight it is a picture of seeds ready for planting. I discovered the most vigorous cherry tomato I had ever seen while walking past somebody’s garden about a month ago. It looked like an enormous shrub or a small tree. I picked a couple of fruit, and a friend showed me this trick… smoosh the tomato onto paper towel, let it dry for a couple of months. Then, plant the paper towel just under the surface of the soil. I’m halfway through the process.

Tomato seeds on a paper towel with two cut glass vases behind.

What I did today: Learned a bit more about CSS/JavaScript while I watched and gave feedback to someone from the UniSA library who is helping me create an Aboriginal cultural safety warning for a Libguide project I am working on. I learned how to make a pop up window fly in, and to use the developer tools to temporarily change the style and features on a page to check how CSS tweaks would look.

We modelled it on the existing fly-in warning that you can see on the University of Sydney Libguides.

ChatGPT 6 months on. Blogjune 5/23


It’s minimalist Blogjune – one pic, one thing I did today.

What I did today: Attended a two hour online seminar along with 3000 other people. Hosted by the higher education regulator, TEQSA, it featured a panel of experts discussing what the sector has learned after our first semester teaching in a world with ChatGPT in it.

My takeaways:

  • Every expert or commentator seems to have their own take on the significance and impact of generative Artificial Intelligence and how the sector should respond.

    I have lived through many tech changes and the big difference to me now is the lack of consensus among people who I would expect to be well-versed. I do not remember such diverging views in past changes like internet connectivity, wide-use of Google, Wikipedia or social media. For these changes I usually found someone whose opinion I trusted and agreed with.

  • Assessment must change. Yesterday.
  • This is not necessarily due to student access to AI. What passes for assessment is a shoe-horning into courses of easily countable activities that can be marked in one hour per student per semester, whether the tasks are relevant and authentic or not. Resourcing for good assessment left the building over a decade ago and much of the problem of assessments easily cracked by AI is due to assessment design that is basically an AI chatbot prompt. No wonder AI chatbots can do them well enough.

  • Currently comfortable and secure knowledge and communications-based university subjects will become obsolete quickly.
  • I suspect my own discipline, librarianship, may be on the list. I teach an information retrieval course, which I suspect demonstrates increasingly artisanal skills for resources rapidly becoming obsolete. For a few years I comforted myself that our profession still had the essential human skills of helping clients refine their questions, recommending the best sources and helping clients evaluate the authority of information. When probabilistic word strings become acceptable as knowledge and “good enough” is the acceptable information standard, I am not sure that knowing how to manually navigate knowledge systems that produce outcomes differently and far,far more slowly, will be a valued skill.

  • As an educator, I am not so concerned about ChatGPT. It’s an easy to spot target with enough eyeballs and clucking tongues dealing with it.
  • What keeps me up at night is the AI-enhancement of tools students have been using for years. I already had problems with Grammarly as a “writing assistant” that homogenises expression and actually prevents skills from developing. Not everyone agreed. Now that it has been enhanced to become basically a predictive knowledge base, some people are digging down because it is familiar. And Microsoft Co-Pilot? It’s here with predictive text whenever you add words to an online interface accessed with Edge web browser. Like an online forum that is being assessed. Or an online test.

Umbrella protest. Blogjune 4/23


It’s minimalist Blogjune – one pic, one thing I did today.

One pic.

A row of 25 or so people on a roadside, all with umbrellas raised, facing into parkland.
People. Umbrellas. Parkland periphery.

I live in a city surrounded by diverse parklands. Some are formal playing fields. Some are mannered rose gardens. There is an olive grove, wetlands, bushland, netball, hockey, pétanque fields,steams, bridges, a walled Japanese garden, a long grove of eucalyptus. Some have been left a bit wild and scrubby.

Wild and scrubby is where biodiversity thrives.

What I did today: Stood with my umbrella on the edge of eight hectares of wild and scrubby restored and replanted land with hundreds of others. We outlined the perimeter of an area proposed for fencing off to build police stables and offices. For forty horses and far, far fewer people (and animals and plants) than currently enjoy the space.

A drone took our image from above, so watch your newsfeeds.

The magic blue trolley. Blogjune 3/23


Keeping with the minimalist Blogjune – one pic, one thing I did today.

I had two sets of pics by the end of the day – countless images of a small grey cat sunbathing, and my rubbish. I know I will resort to cat pics before this is done, so rubbish it is.

Today’s pic shows an essential for apartment living, the foldable trolley. Living with a kitty litter tray means having some way to get all that stuff from upper floors to the ground. I managed to move a refrigerator down a city street with this trolley. It’s essential for unloading shopping and transporting gear from car to home.

Several white IKEA bins stacked in a blue cloth and metal trolley

WHAT I DID TODAY: It was all about Angela Merkel today. I cycled to the cinema to see a documentary that I hoped would give me insight into someone who felt like one of the few adults in the room when the pandemic started. It was pleasant, and I still admire her humanity and reason, but do not know much more. It bookended a week that started with another world leader, when I was in the audience for the Prime Minister’s Lowitja O’Donoghue Oration.