From seemingly out of nowhere, we seem to have entered a new age of artificial intelligence (AI). The likes of ChatGPT have turned a technology that seemed to be years away into something that's available now for free (or at a relatively low cost).
While not precise and not truly rational, these generative AIs have proven to be so good at writing text that they're already good to go in a number of applications. Of course, one of those applications is writing essays and texts for schools and universities. In fact, the AI seems so good that it begs the question: is essay writing obsolete? While the answer is probably 'no', essay writing is about to change dramatically -- once more.
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Pen, Paper, and Progress
In the age of artificial intelligence, the landscapes of communication and discourse stand at a precipice. No longer are humans the only producers of useful text -- algorithms can also churn out text that's useful and interesting (or seemingly useful and interesting).
Our cherished and time-honored traditions of knowledge exchange, storytelling, and introspection are therefore being challenged and reimagined. Change—relentless and unyielding—is pushing the boundaries of what we believed to be the mainstays of intellectual communication. ChatGPT, a forerunner in this technological revolution, embodies this seismic shift and ushers us into a new era of possibilities.
This isn't the first time writing has changed dramatically. Just imagine, hundreds of years ago, people would painstakingly transcribe writings by hand. Then, the typewriter came and revolutionized things. Then, modern typewriters changed things once again. Then came computers -- this chain of innovation is unlikely to stop right now.
But it's not just the form of the writing that's changed. Documentation and the purpose of writing have also changed dramatically.
The Purpose of Essay Writing
Among all forms of written expression, the essay holds a distinguished place. It has been the canvas for thinkers, scholars, and everyday individuals to articulate complex thoughts, ideas, and opinions. Imagine writing an essay 2,000 years ago. It would have been a pretty serious task, reserved only for those elite scholars who not only had much to say, but who could also afford something to write on, and something to write with.
For centuries on end, this hadn't changed much. Books were a scarce commodity. If you wanted to write an essay, finding relevant information beforehand would have been a big challenge.
Fast forward to public libraries, and suddenly, you have a lot of information you can access freely. Essays became a part of homework or exams. Then, in a relatively short amount of time, computers became available. You no longer even needed books -- you could access everything on a database, and then on the internet.
With the dawn of AI, this established form of discourse finds itself at yet intersection of tradition and evolution. The phenomenon of machine-written prose compels us to reevaluate and reimagine our relationships with written communication.
Until now, whether it was a papyrus, a book, or an online text, the author was always human. But not anymore.
The Internet, AI, and Beyond
Essay writing has undergone continual evolution. From the elaborate prose of the Enlightenment period to the more succinct, argumentative essays of the 20th century, change is not alien. The advent of the digital age catalyzed yet another shift. The Internet birthed the blog post, an essay's informal cousin. Even Twitter threads, in their brevity, bear essay-like characteristics: introducing an idea, arguing for it, and concluding.
Society adapted to these changes, but the core tenet of essay-writing remained unchanged.
This did not happen without friction. Society, or some parts of society, reacted negatively to the introduction of technology into a pursuit that was once pure and human. The advent of the internet streamlined the research process, which many saw as an opportunity to cheat when writing essays. But while the internet enhanced access to information, it still required analytical skills to write the essay -- and plagiarism tools made sure no one could get away with copying.
Artificial intelligence, the latest revolution in written communication, brings a different challenge. Machine learning models, such as ChatGPT, are capable of crafting human-like text. They have acquired the ability to respond to prompts with contextually relevant responses. Students can just go online and ask the AI to "write my essay" and then copy the response. As AI develops, the distinction between machine-generated and human-generated text blurs.
But although ChatGPT simplifies information processing, it doesn't analyze information. Hence, critical thinking is still necessary to produce the final output. Its texts may be, in some regards, indistinguishable from human texts -- but they don't offer clarity, vision, and deep reasoning.
Simply put, ChatGPT's essays are compelling only on the surface. They could mimic a middle school-level essay, or maybe even a high-school essay in some contexts. But the reasoning skills you'd expect from a university-level essay are not there. At least not yet.
Is There Still a Room for Essays?
The power of ChatGPT begs a question: have essays become obsolete? The answer is complex.
The implications are profound.
The technological prowess of AI cannot be disputed. It can generate text at a phenomenal rate, unencumbered by fatigue or writer's block. It can replicate patterns and mimic styles. Sure, it lacks the human touch, the personal experiences, and the unique perspective that breathe life into an essay, but it's not always easy to distinguish an AI text from a human text.
While AI can assist in writing an essay, it cannot conceptualize a unique idea. It cannot draw from personal experiences or empathize with human emotions. These facets of human creativity and intellect are currently irreplicable by AI. For now, at least.
Could it become capable of this in the future? Who can tell? The way things are changing, it's hard to make any prognoses. But essays are not obsolete. They're changing once more.
To counter this challenge, the essay format has to change. Professors need to include personalized questions, using current events as topics, student presentations of their essays, writing essays offline during exams, and oral tests based on the essay.
Critical thinking remains the cornerstone of the essay-writing process, and educators are tasked with devising ways to ensure its presence even in the era of AI. Granted, it won't be easy; it won't be easy at all. But fundamentally, there's no reason to write off essays just yet.
Conclusion: The Persistence of the Essay
Historically, the essay played a pivotal role in society. It provided an essential outlet for individuals to articulate complex thoughts, ideas, and opinions. To express. To persuade. To argue. It served as a tool to demonstrate understanding, to analyze, and to critique. Critical thinking and comprehensive argumentation took center stage. Above all, essays were an avenue to manifest one's individual voice.
While ChatGPT has changed the game, it has not rendered essays obsolete. Instead, it has become a tool to enhance our ability to write them, and a challenge for professors who want to see what they students are really thinking. In the ideal situation, it can help streamline the writing process, removing some of the burdens, and allowing the writer to focus on the crux: conveying their unique thoughts and ideas. In worse situations, it can help students cheat.
But beyond all this, the role of the essay continues to endure, even in this age of AI. Its purpose extends beyond the words on a page—it is a manifestation of the writer's mind and soul. This sentiment, this essence, this distinctly human element is something that, at least for now, technology cannot render obsolete. The evolution of essay writing will continue, shaped by technology, but never fully supplanted by it. As long as there are human experiences to be articulated, the essay will endure.