Like basically every other person on the planet, I have been playing with ChatGPT over the last week or so, both because things like this are interesting to me generally and because there are clear and obvious implications for academia as AI writing gets increasingly advanced. There are clearly two main areas in which AI writing will intersect in academia: teaching and research (when did academia come down to not these two things!)
At this point in time, I am not concerned about AI essays. Every prompt I put through ChatGPT returned pieces that were too short, lacking in detail, riddled with factual inaccuracies, and either with no references or completely made-up references.
I did envision a scenario in which a student might generate an essay using ChatGPT and then ‘fix it’. I played around with this and again concluded that I am not worried about it. Not only do I think it would take longer to turn an AI-generated essay into a passable piece of work, but it would also achieve the aim of the assessment – to get the student to learn something about whatever topic and apply critical thinking and analysis. So much so that I am now seriously considering the implications for using AI-generated essays in this way. Imagine this exam scenario, for instance:
Below is a short essay generated by AI software. Your task is to edit this essay for both factual inaccuracies, expand to answer the question more fully, and to add further concrete examples of figurative sculpture in ancient Greek architecture:
Figurative sculpture played a significant role in ancient Greek architecture, serving both functional and decorative purposes. Some of the most famous examples of figurative sculpture in ancient Greek architecture can be found on the facades of temples, where sculpted figures often depicted gods, goddesses, and mythical creatures. These sculptures were meant to convey the power and importance of the deities being worshipped, as well as to serve as a form of protection for the temple itself.
In addition to being used on temple facades, figurative sculpture was also a common element of public buildings and private homes. In these cases, the sculptures were often used to depict historical events, cultural traditions, or the accomplishments of important individuals. For example, the Parthenon in Athens is adorned with a series of sculpted panels known as the "frieze," which depict a procession of people and animals.
Figurative sculpture in ancient Greek architecture was not limited to stone and marble. Bronze and terra cotta were also popular materials for sculpting, and many ancient Greek sculptures were created using these materials. In fact, some of the most famous figurative sculptures in ancient Greek architecture, such as the Bronze Charioteer of Delphi, were created using bronze.
One of the key features of ancient Greek figurative sculpture was its realism and attention to detail. Sculptors worked to create lifelike representations of their subjects, often depicting them in natural poses and with accurate proportions. This realism was achieved through the use of various sculpting techniques, such as the "lost-wax" method, which allowed sculptors to create highly detailed and intricate works of art.
Despite the importance of figurative sculpture in ancient Greek architecture, many of these sculptures were lost or destroyed over time. Many were damaged or destroyed during wars, while others were pillaged and taken to other countries. However, a number of these sculptures have been preserved and can still be seen today in museums and cultural institutions around the world.
Overall, figurative sculpture played a crucial role in ancient Greek architecture, serving both functional and decorative purposes. These sculptures helped to convey the power and importance of the deities being worshipped, and they played a significant role in the cultural and artistic traditions of ancient Greece.
The essay starts off fine enough – but by the end, we have been through a rollercoaster that included the Charioteer of Delphi, which is clearly not within the remit of “figurative sculpture in ancient Greek architecture” (the prompt for the AI here was ‘Please generate a six-paragraph essay on figurative sculpture in ancient Greek architecture’). In fact, there’s quite a lot in there to both correct and expand on. A task such as this demonstrates students’ knowledge as much as writing an essay from scratch in exam conditions and is probably better at testing their critical engagement with the material than such an essay. It's also the kind of prompt that could be generated individually – obviously depending on class size – if a teacher were concerned about group work in exams held online. Thus, even with the same prompt, each student would have a slightly different version of the essay to work with.
On the research front, I’m also not really concerned about AI replacing research writing any time soon. By virtue of its own databank, it is not sophisticated enough to analyse texts, objects, events, and culture in new ways. But there is an interesting way that it could be used for assisting with limited analysis of data – by feeding that data in and asking it to recognise patterns, for instance. More than that, though, I think it will be a useful tool for those ‘I don’t know what I need to know’ moments in research where you work intersects with another (sub)field and you spend the better part of a day figuring out what it is you need to know about that field to move your own work on. I’m not at all saying that the answer is to ask ChatGPT to teach you, say, Aristotle’s thoughts on the senses. That prompt generates this:
Aristotle believed that the senses were the means by which human beings gained knowledge of the world around them. He identified five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.
In his view, sight was the most important of the senses because it allowed us to perceive the most information about the world. Hearing was the second most important sense because it allowed us to communicate with others and learn about our surroundings. The other senses – smell, taste, and touch – were less important because they provided less information about the world.
Aristotle also believed that the senses were related to the elements. He thought that sight was related to the element of fire, hearing was related to the element of air, smell was related to the element of earth, taste was related to the element of water, and touch was related to the element of earth.
Overall, Aristotle's views on the senses were influential in shaping the way that philosophers and scientists have thought about the senses for centuries.
Which is not very helpful at all from a research perspective. But, if one were to ask ChatGPT ‘Where does Aristotle discuss the senses and give a brief synopsis of each’ the answer then is:
Aristotle discusses the senses in a number of his works, including the "De Anima" (On the Soul), the "Metaphysics," and the "Nicomachean Ethics."
In the "De Anima," Aristotle provides a detailed analysis of the nature of the senses and how they function. He argues that the senses are the means by which we perceive the world around us, and he identifies five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. He also discusses the relationship between the senses and the elements, as well as the role that the senses play in our ability to gain knowledge.
In the "Metaphysics," Aristotle discusses the nature of reality and how we come to know it. He argues that our senses provide us with the raw data that we use to form our knowledge of the world, and he discusses the limitations of the senses and the ways in which they can be deceived.
In the "Nicomachean Ethics," Aristotle discusses the role that the senses play in our moral lives. He argues that the senses can lead us astray if we are not careful, and that we need to use reason and judgment to guide our actions. He also discusses the importance of cultivating our senses in order to live a good life.
Now we’re getting somewhere because I can see that – as I’m interested in (hypothetically) the relationship between the senses and knowledge, I know I need to read De Anima. So I ask ChatGPT to expand on Aristotle’s argument about the relationship between the senses and knowledge:
Aristotle believed that the senses were the means by which human beings gained knowledge of the world. He argued that the senses provided us with the raw data that we used to form our knowledge, and that this data was necessary for us to have any understanding of the world around us.
However, Aristotle also recognized that the senses had limitations and that they could be deceived. He argued that the senses could only provide us with information about the properties of objects that are directly perceivable through the senses, such as their size, shape, color, and texture. The senses could not provide us with knowledge of abstract or non-perceivable concepts, such as mathematical truths or the nature of the divine.
Aristotle believed that in order to gain knowledge of these abstract concepts, we needed to use reason and argument. He argued that we could use our senses to gather data about the world, and then use our reasoning abilities to draw conclusions about the nature of the world based on this data.
Overall, Aristotle's view was that the senses played a crucial role in our ability to gain knowledge, but that they were limited and needed to be supplemented by reason in order to gain a full understanding of the world.
Performing this brief set of queries (which took no more than five minutes to ask, generate, and read) I have a much clearer sense of how to search for the information I want – both in Aristotle’s work and in scholarship. I have thus saved myself a few hours of searching though Google Scholar and the Loeb Online to find even roughly what I needed to advance the argument that I am making about whatever thing that isn’t Aristotle, but which I thought Aristotle’s understanding of senses might help me to flesh out.
There’s one other way I think that ChatGPT might be useful for research, and its when you have even less of an idea about what you need to know – and you then ask ChatGPT to write you a detailed table of contents, with sub-sections for a textbook on whatever it is – this gives you almost immediately a great overview of a subject which can allow you to see what it is that you might need or want to know about it. In the example here the prompt was: Please write a sample table of contents including subsections and a brief synopsis of each chapter for a textbook about Aristotle. The result:
Here is a sample table of contents for a textbook about Aristotle:
I. Introduction to Aristotle
Chapter 1: Biography and Historical Context
This chapter provides an overview of Aristotle's life and the historical context in which he lived. It covers his education, his relationship with Plato, and his influence on later philosophers.
Chapter 2: Overview of Aristotle's Philosophy
This chapter provides an overview of Aristotle's philosophy, including his views on metaphysics, ethics, politics, and the natural world. It introduces key concepts such as the "unmoved mover" and the "golden mean."
II. Aristotle's Metaphysics
Chapter 3: The Nature of Reality
This chapter discusses Aristotle's views on the nature of reality, including his belief in the existence of substances and his concept of causation.
Chapter 4: The Unmoved Mover
This chapter discusses Aristotle's concept of the "unmoved mover," which he believed to be the ultimate cause of all motion in the universe.
Chapter 5: Substance and Essence
This chapter discusses Aristotle's views on substance and essence, including his belief that every substance has an essence that defines its nature.
III. Aristotle's Ethics
Chapter 6: The Good Life
This chapter discusses Aristotle's views on the good life, including his concept of the "golden mean" and his belief that virtue is necessary for happiness.
Chapter 7: Virtues and Vices
This chapter discusses Aristotle's views on virtues and vices, including his belief that virtues are habits of character that allow us to act in accordance with reason.
Chapter 8: Friendship
This chapter discusses Aristotle's views on friendship, including his belief that there are different types of friendship and that friendship is an important part of a happy life.
IV. Aristotle's Politics
Chapter 9: The State and the Citizen
This chapter discusses Aristotle's views on the nature of the state and the role of the citizen within it.
Chapter 10: Forms of Government
This chapter discusses Aristotle's views on different forms of government, including monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.
Chapter 11: Justice and the Common Good
This chapter discusses Aristotle's views on justice and the common good, including his belief that the state should be structured in a way that promotes the common good of its citizens.
V. Aristotle's Natural Philosophy
Chapter 12: The Study of Nature
This chapter discusses Aristotle's views on the study of nature, including his belief that the natural world is ordered and can be studied using reason.
Chapter 13: The Four Causes
This chapter discusses Aristotle's concept of the four causes, including the material, formal, efficient, and final causes.
Chapter 14: The Natural World
This chapter discusses Aristotle's views on the natural world, including his classification of living things and his belief in the concept of teleology.
Chapter 15: The Legacy of Aristotle
This chapter discusses the lasting impact of Aristotle's philosophy and its influence on later philosophers. It also covers the revival of interest in Aristotle's work during the Renaissance.
Such Tables of Contents will never be cutting-edge research-based books. They can’t be by nature of the databank – but they will give you a good overview of the state of play in a field.
There’s clearly a lot more playing and experimenting to do with ChatGPT and similar AI chat and writing tools – but I think there’s some really interesting and exciting potential to be had for both teaching and research in ancient Mediterranean Studies.