Chatbot as Audience: A Conversation with Chad

After weeks of reading about other college educators having conversations with ChatGPT, the new artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot from OpenAI that uses the GPT-3 family of large language models, I thought it was time to have a conversation with ChatGPT myself. (Disclaimer: I don’t entirely understand all the terms I used in that last sentence.) See, I’ve been thinking about that thing that Lee Skallerup Bessette said last month about having students interact with chatbots as an audience for their academic work, and I wanted to figure out how that might work. Also, I was preparing to give a talk at Temple University about teaching and technology, and I couldn’t not mention ChatGPT in January 2023, right?

Image generated by DALL-E using the same prompt that Alan Levine used: A know it all man like Cliff Clavin sits at a wooden bar, talking like an expert, photographic style
Image generated by DALL-E using the same prompt that Alan Levine used: A know it all man like Cliff Clavin sits at a wooden bar, talking like an expert, photographic style

One of the ideas I had about student activities using ChatGPT, which I’ll call Chad from here out for convenience (after Alan Levine), is asking students to talk to Chad about some topic they already know well (a hobby or maybe a sport), to see what Chad does and doesn’t know about things. (I’m seriously anthropomorphizing here, of course. Chad isn’t a person and doesn’t know anything. Chad is an algorithm that I just barely understand.) Chad presents himself as an authority on lots of stuff, but it’s been clear from other educators’ interactions with Chad that Chad gets stuff wrong a lot. That’s a good lesson about AI text generation tools for students, and having them experience that firsthand about a topic they already know might help that lesson sink in.

I occasionally teach a course on cryptography, which includes discussion of the role of encryption in today’s society, which leads us to topics like surveillance and privacy. This a topic I know well, and one that I’ve had many students write papers about, so I chose this topic for my conversation with Chad. Here’s how it started:

Me: There has been much debate over the surveillance powers that governments have over their citizens. But if you have nothing to hide, why would you worry if your government is surveilling you?

Chad: The idea that “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about” is a common argument in favor of government surveillance, but it is flawed for several reasons.

First, it presumes that the government’s surveillance is only directed at people who are doing something wrong, but that is not always the case. Surveillance programs can be used to target people based on their race, religion, political beliefs, or other factors that have nothing to do with criminal activity. Even if a person is not doing anything wrong, they may still be subject to harassment or discrimination if they are deemed to be “suspicious” because of the way they look or the group of people they associate with.

Additionally, the idea that you have nothing to hide implies that privacy is only important for those who are doing something wrong. However, privacy is a fundamental human right that is necessary for many aspects of our lives, such as the freedom to express ourselves and to make personal choices without fear of retaliation. It also allows us to establish and maintain relationships with others, and to participate in society without fear of surveillance.

Finally, even if you believe that you are not doing anything wrong and you have nothing to hide, the power to surveil still poses a danger to society as a whole. Governments that have the power to surveil their citizens without checks and balances can easily abuse that power to stifle dissent, silence critics, and punish political opponents. This can have a chilling effect on democracy and the free exchange of ideas, which is essential for a healthy society.

In summary the idea of ‘nothing to hide’ is a red herring, that misses the point that privacy is a fundamental human right, it is not only about hiding something illegal but also about the freedom of choice and self-expression, it’s about the preservation of democracy and free speech as well as for personal safety and security.

Did you actually ready all of that? If so, good for you. Chad is very, very wordy. He talks in solid, if unexciting three-point essays. Which is why so many educators have been freaking out these last couple of months, because if your homework involves assigning students to write solid, if unexciting three-point essays, then you can bet on the fact that Chad has been ghostwriting for your students since November.

Let’s not focus on that, however. Let’s imagine that in the discourse above, I’m a student talking to Chad about a topic I know well, or maybe one that I’m just learning about, like the tradeoffs between privacy and surveillance. I ask a relatively short question, and Chad responds with a longwinded three-point essay. What should I do next, if I’m trying to treat Chad like an audience for my growing understanding of privacy and surveillance? Let me see if I can point out a potential flaw in Chad’s argument. That would be a useful move to make.

Me: Some governments have robust checks-and-balances to prevent the kind of abuse you’re describing. Doesn’t that mitigate the concerns you’ve raised here?

Chad: Checks and balances are an important safeguard against government abuse of surveillance powers, but they are not a guarantee that such abuse will never occur. Even with robust checks and balances in place, there is always a risk that government officials will find ways to circumvent or undermine them.

For example, laws governing surveillance may be written in such a way that they are easily interpreted to allow for wide-ranging surveillance. Or, oversight bodies may lack the resources or independence to effectively monitor government actions. Or, Whistleblowers may be afraid to come forward.

Additionally, even when checks and balances are functioning as intended, they may not be sufficient to protect against certain kinds of abuse. For example, a surveillance program that targets individuals based on their race or political beliefs may not be illegal, but it can still be unjust and harmful.

It’s important to remember that the mere existence of checks and balances does not necessarily mean that a government’s surveillance powers are being used in a way that is consistent with human rights and democratic principles. It’s important to keep monitoring the government’s actions and be vigilant to potential abuse and push for more effective oversight and regulation mechanisms. And also to have transparency, so that citizens can see what their government is doing and have a say in the matter.

It’s also important to have a open public debate on the government’s surveillance powers, the purpose of such powers and the balance between protecting citizens and maintaining individual rights and freedoms. Only then we can have a society where citizens can have trust in their government and vice-versa.

Seriously, Chad, read the room. Short questions need short answers.

When composing my question to Chad, I had a very interesting moment. I typed, “Some governments have robust checks-and-balances to prevent the kind of…” Overreach is the word I wanted to use, but I wasn’t sure if Chad would understand that, so I went with “abuse” instead. Those aren’t entirely synonyms, however, and using “abuse” might take the argument in a direction I don’t want it to go. But would Chad get the nuance that comes with “overreach” in this discussion?

Again, I’m fully anthropomorphizing here, but that’s kind of the point. Chad acts something like an interested (perhaps overly interested) respondent for my questions about this topic. Playing out this exercise is getting me to think about my word choice as I communicate with an audience I don’t know very well. I totally want the students in my writing seminars to think about their word choices like this!

Let’s finish this debate.

Me: It’s true that checks and balances don’t prevent all overreach or abuse, but we citizens already cede a lot of power to our governments, trusting that the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs. You haven’t addressed the benefits of government surveillance for safety and threat prevention.?

Chad: You are correct that government surveillance can play a role in keeping citizens safe and preventing threats. Some argue that surveillance can help to detect and prevent terrorism, for example, or to locate and capture dangerous criminals. In some cases, government surveillance may be necessary to protect the public from immediate harm.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that the benefits of surveillance must be balanced against the costs to individual privacy and civil liberties. The decision to use surveillance should be based on a careful consideration of the potential risks and benefits, and it should be subject to robust oversight and accountability mechanisms to ensure that it is not being used in a way that is arbitrary or unjust.

Additionally, it’s important to consider the potential of alternative methods of threat prevention or safety enhancement which may not involve surveillance or may involve less intrusion to individual privacy. Such alternatives may be more effective and less costly in terms of civil liberties.

It’s also worth noting that some of the information gathered through surveillance may not be as useful as it may seem at first glance. For example, indiscriminate mass surveillance may lead to a large number of false leads and distractions, which can actually make it more difficult for law enforcement to identify and investigate real threats. And the collection of vast amount of data can also raise serious concerns about data security, data breaches and mishandling of information.

Finally, it’s important to remember that surveillance must be carried out in a way that respects human rights and the rule of law, as well as being transparent, proportionate and targeted. This means that the surveillance should be conducted in accordance with the law, and be necessary and proportionate to achieving a legitimate aim.

Okay, now Chad is making some rhetorical moves that go beyond the three-point essay. “You are correct that… However…” Again, not an exciting rhetorical move, but a solid one, and one that some of my first-year writing students struggle to make. I feel like I could do something with this kind of exercise in my writing seminars, especially if students are asking Chad about something they already know about. With familiar topics, this exercise might help students focus on the ways that debate happens and how they might make similar moves in their writing.

I might also ask my students to assess Chad’s posture of authority on this topic. “How does that land with you? Is this a posture you adopt in your academic writing?” The answer to the second question is, yes, all the time.

Okay, your turn. How might you use ChatGPT or similar tools as audiences for your students and their writing?

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