May 12, 2023
Assistant … or replacement? AI, in real life
Matt Benoit

Yes, an app did this: Western Washington University professor Ed Love’s cat avatar image — which he finds bears a certain resemblance — was generated by artificial intelligence. (Courtesy image)

May 12, 2023
Assistant … or replacement? AI, in real life
Matt Benoit

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On his Western Washington University webpage, the faculty portrait of Western Washington University’s Ed Love is a painting of a cat that resembles him. 

But Love, a professor and chair of WWU’s department of finance and marketing, didn’t create this artistically rendered feline doppelgänger: an artificial intelligence — AI — image generator did. 

It’s just one small way that both text and images from AI — the subject of both modern news stories and classic science fiction tales — are finding more and more use in the everyday lives of human beings. 

Local residents who utilize the technology — for both financial and academic gain — have differing opinions on current AI, and where the future may take us. 

Assistant, not a replacement

Guy Occhiogrosso, president of the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce, said that while most local businesses likely lack the capital to engage in AI professionally, others may be using it for some services. 

One new local business leaning on it heavily is “All Drafts,” a word processing application for drafting legal contracts. Founded by former FaithLife CEO Bob Pritchett, All Drafts has only half a dozen employees and is not yet commercially available, but the company is just weeks away from offering its product to early-access users. 

The app, which will be a subscription product, utilizes Open AI’s ChatGPT technology and will be cloud-based, Pritchett said, and will also be able to work in a browser. 

“I think it’s well-suited to legal work,” Pritchett said, about using AI. “A lot of legal work is formulaic. AI’s going to be a great aid to making that faster and cheaper.”

All Drafts will essentially automate document creation and editing, turning existing contracts into templates so attorneys — many of whom work solo or for small firms and often lack human assistants — can reuse them.

Pritchett explained that information from previous contacts will be automatically removed and new information reformatted at the simple click of a button, saving attorneys time and likely making basic wills and health directives cheaper as a result. 

Pritchett sees the best harnessing of current AI to act as an assistant to humans, not a replacement. 

“There’s a lot of fear that AI’s going to replace jobs, or you won’t need an attorney because AI can write the document,” he said. “That seems to me like a dangerous move. I’ve played with the AI a lot, and it makes stuff up sometimes. There’s a reason we use an attorney who knows what they’re doing, and I think that making AI an assistant to them is a great move. Trying to use it as a replacement? We’re probably not ready for that.”

FaithLife, the Bellingham-based company responsible for the electronic Bible software used by pastors for sermon-writing and religious scholars for research, may also eventually incorporate AI into their technology, Pritchett said. 

“You certainly don’t want AI to write a sermon,” he said. “But the stuff that makes AI really good at generating text actually makes it useful at finding text. It’s a great search aide for searching by concept, without having the exact words right.”

Pritchett said he believes AI technology will rapidly expand in business over the next decade. He sees it as the equivalent of past technologies that transformed the way people worked, like calculators and spreadsheets.

“People used to use ledger books and pens, right?” he said. “They tallied numbers on pieces of paper. And a spreadsheet just kind of took over everywhere. But it didn’t put CPAs out of business. Someone still has to understand the numbers and organize them; it just became a tool that you wouldn’t do anything without.”

In the classroom

Meg Weber, an instructor and director of community engagement for WWU’s entrepreneurship program, has been using ChatGPT in her classroom since last summer.

Her students are using AI to help brainstorm ideas and questions about their businesses, and the customers those businesses will attempt to reach.   

“It’s been really interesting and useful for teaching, as well as for ventures that are starting up and being coached,” Weber said. “There’s so much depth to how it can be utilized in business. We’re just skimming the surface.”

ChatGPT helps her students answer questions faster than Google does, she added. It’s especially helpful for customer interviews — where students go into the real world and query strangers who could be potential customers for their business ideas. 

Weber also encourages students to have their original copy rewritten by ChatGPT, providing several different ways they might make changes to what they already have. Even if ChatGPT comes up with a response that isn’t helpful, Weber will sometimes use it to stoke classroom discussion. 

Assisting … or cheating?

Students using the technology to cheat by having ChatGPT do assignments for them is a common academic concern over AI. 

Love and most college professors who teach online have students submit work through Canvas, a course management system that now has a screening tool to detect AI-generated work. Love said he’s unsure how accurate it is, but his students are aware of it. 

Weber said many WWU students seem to be approaching using AI with at least some hesitance, as they’re unsure where the poorly defined line between assistance and cheating actually is. 

Weber, who is working on her doctorate, has similar questions.

“I can hire an editor to help me with rewriting my thesis, but if I ask ChatGPT to rewrite it, am I now being unethical and dishonest?” she said. “So, those types of boundary conditions are definitely on student’s minds.”

But as a professor who teaches a subject offering a unique ability to incorporate AI, she isn’t worried about cheating nearly as much. 

 “The risk of students faking it is much lower,” she said. “They’re still going to learn so much, or even more, in using AI than just by doing customer discovery face-to-face.”

Replaced by an app?

Still, some students have another worrisome thought: that the entry-level jobs they might do out of college will soon be replaced by AI.

While most worst-case scenarios envision a hellish future where AI achieves sentience, or becomes so obsessed with efficiency it enslaves or kills off humanity, the truly pressing concerns around the technology are more grounded. 

Shawn Kemp, a Bellingham resident with extensive experience in AI through his work in technology-based product strategy and innovation, is primarily concerned about how AI can be used to produce misinformation and disinformation at a large, rapid pace.

From flooding social media with fake news stories to flooding a court with automatically created subpoenas as the result of a lawsuit, Kemp said there is plenty of opportunity for bad actors to confuse and confound. 

Kemp said the AI technology he works with — language learning models (LLMs) like ChatGPT and AI image generators like Midjourney — has taken dramatic leaps in how well they achieve their end results. Within the last three months, he said, things have gone from helpful to “pure magic.”

That level of proficiency leads to a common second worry — offsetting paid human workers. This is especially true for information workers whose jobs involve either creative or mechanical tasks: graphic designers, copyeditors or even medical research assistants. 

“Nothing has ever hit this fast, from a technology standpoint, that’s this disruptive across so many fields,” Kemp said. “What that’s going to mean is unknown at this point.”

Love said he believes concerns about AI may be overestimated in the short-term and underestimated in the long-term. 

He’s used ChatGPT to help write memos and letters, he said, speeding up the overall process by providing him a template draft from which to work with. It’s a risk, he said, given the software’s propensity to make things up when it can’t find a clear answer to something. But if used judiciously, it can be quite efficient. 

“You want to make sure that the key points you’re trying to make are your own, and the words are your own and you’re not misrepresenting anything,” Love said.  

Pritchett has little worry about AI wreaking havoc on mankind, or on the overall job market. Current AI LLM models, he said, are essentially pattern recognition machines that lack agency. Getting to some kind of dystopian future will likely be harder than some people think. 

“There are a lot of things that become 80% useful, and that last 20% is stunningly difficult,” Pritchett said of technology advancement. “It’s certainly easy to prompt AI to say something offensive or horrible or stupid or wrong … (if) you train it on all the text that exists on the Internet.”

The future is now

Kemp estimates that less than 3% of the world’s population both uses and really understands how AI works. 

That number will likely skyrocket, however, and many people use software with AI without realizing it: Microsoft Office and Google Docs, Kemp said, have already integrated AI into their latest versions. 

Weber, who is also president of Technology Alliance Group, a non-profit advocating for technology businesses in the local community, said that both businesses and customers are becoming increasingly aware of and interested in how AI may soon be part of their lives. 

This month, she’s also a facilitator for an online conference on AI and its role in entrepreneurship education. 

And Love, with his AI cat portrait, is excited about the possibilities for academic literature review. AI could, he said, rapidly summarize a body of academic work to find relevant information more quickly — a process that currently is immensely time-consuming.

While nobody truly knows what the future holds, least of all AI itself, the present is already proving to be an interesting time for artificial intelligence use.

— Reported by Matt Benoit

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