I’ve been looking for online tools to help students with writing.
There’s some brilliant stuff out there for free already. I’ll certainly be recommending the Hemingway app, which looks at how complex and difficult blocks of text are. To be honest I may need to get used to using it myself: it scored a sample of my writing as… very hard to understand, so, yeah.
But I also found something else.
I found an AI text-generator from WriteSonic. This is surely every writer and educator’s worst nightmare. Is it possible that our students are already using these to write essays? Could they make writers redundant?
WriteSonic gifts you a small number of credits that you can use for a whole range of tasks, to automate parts of the process of generating text.*
Why not, I thought.
First step, I select to suggest a subject for a blog post. OK, I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about the ‘decline of magic’ recently. Off we go!
Based on this prompt, the generator suggests a range of blog post titles, with (to be honest) mostly similar structures, a bit like ‘The Decline of Magic: What is It, and Why Does It Matter’.
(Though, to be honest, who can argue with the simple, direct appeal of titles like this?)
I settle on something a bit more complex: ‘The Decline of Magic: How Science and Technology Are Destroying Our Belief in the Impossible’.
So far, so straightforward. But I still have enough credits for something more ambitious. WriteSonic is going to have a go at writing the post.
I am apprehensive. It can write a whole post just on this prompt and title?
Actually, it can’t.
Before it will even give it a go, it asks me for 100-150 words. Lazy machine!
I’ve written myself into a bit of a corner here, as I do *not* in fact believe that technology destroys the supernatural, or our belief in the impossible.
Sod it, here goes:
Where our ancestors once called upon prayer, charms, and rituals, we have computers. After all, what is an iPhone if not a powerful magical artefact, both capable of calling up the best route to get to a restaurant, a video of the family you have not seen since 2019, a Japanese lesson, or, not to put too fine a point on it, the sum of all human knowledge. And do we not treat these technologies with some of the same reverence, fear, and anxiety provoked by magical objects? The truth is staring us in the face: data is our God.
Well that was fun. Don’t believe a word of it, but what the hell, this is a brave new world of computers doing my work for me!
The moment of truth.
WriteSonic is going to generate a further three sections to add to my introduction.
I am on the edge of my seat. Here it is:
Technology and Magic
Many of us would be hard-pressed to remember a time when “information” was something we could not readily find, manipulate, share, and store. Information is only a small part of what makes the web such an important phenomenon. The engine behind it, in spite of many years of effort by both academics and corporations, has been the algorithm. Early in the 20th Century, there were a number of things that people “knew,” but no one had the information to bring them to life. Then the Russian mystic Vladimir Nabokov read of Karl Leonhard Fechner’s 1919 work, Science and the Modern World, and became obsessed with this mysterious process.
How Technology Has Replaced Magical Objects
When the first machine was built and came to our attention, we were not completely bereft of life. Instead, the first machine caused our ancestors to flee the natural order, rendering them all but extinct. With humans now in control of their world, anything that could make us more powerful was welcomed. Modern technology was often hailed as a more efficient way to do things, as an advantage over the old ways. At the turn of the nineteenth century, electricity made electric lights possible, but did not reduce demand for candles or oil lamps. The era of electricity saw society make great leaps forward, and opened up a new economy that helped feed, clothe, and house the masses. The demand for electricity meant that innovative companies could build factories and generate great wealth.
Does Technology Destroy Magic?
For any of us to say that technology does not affect religion and belief is to deny both history and contemporary reality. As I point out in my book, many of the best-known belief systems in the world—Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam—are most easily detected by counting the number of adherents. This same pattern holds for most of the world’s fastest-growing religions—Judaism, Islam, and Christianity in particular. In 2017, according to the Pew Research Center, there were more than 1.5 billion Christians (up from 30% of the world’s population in 1950); 2.3 billion Muslims (up from 1% in 1950); and 1.2 billion Hindus (up from 0.2% in 1950). It would be a mistake to view these beliefs as peripheral or somehow anomalous.
As you can see, there are many ways we can objectify and infantilise technology. Even when we do not intentionally infantilise it, it remains the norm and shape of our world.
Well… it… makes sense. I guess.
I mean, if a student used this to generate a piece of work, it would require some serious, serious reworking before it looked like anything that would pass the marking criteria where I work. I mean so much work that you wonder if it wouldn’t be easier just to write it from, you know, scratch.
And you won’t be surprised to learn that I’m not planning to subscribe and use this to write my blog going forward.
The internal logic of the post is, well, there isn’t one? And to be honest, it’s just RUDE for the post to start claiming I have written books that I… haven’t. The conclusion is perhaps the worst conclusion I have read for some time. It kind of makes sense, but it really does not connect to the paragraphs.
AI, you aren’t gonna pass UG history just yet.
Two final reflections.
First, the text generator already requires fairly substantial amounts of ‘intro’ text. The AI has not generated the post just from a prompt, but still requires quite a lot of human input. I’m not redundant yet!
The other thing I’d note is a query over where it is getting its material from. The reference to a book and to specific statistics from this book strongly suggests that the generated text is based (as you’d expect) on reading a lot of other text, which is then reworked for this purpose. Even if the mangled argument didn’t give the computer away, this sloppy citation practice would certainly see the work flagged for plagiarism.
And, no doubt, this flagging would probably be done by another computer.
The robot wars are upon us.
*Disclosure: WriteSonic offers free credits for online reviews. This post is NOT, I repeat not, in exchange for free credits.
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