Test of AI-Assisted Writing: Yes, AI Will Impact Education

Long live(d) the term paper, the book report, and the essay question. AI is here, a development that will impact teachers and professors of so many subjects: history, philosophy, literature, psychology—anywhere writing is part of learning and of examinations. ChatGPT will become the new spellchecker and the new crib notes.

Competition between Google Docs’ Help me write, Microsoft’s Copilot, and Grammarly’s AI offering will cement this new future in education. It appears writers will have a hard time finding a word processor that doesn’t try to do their writing for them.

Artificial intelligence poses greater threats, or course, than just mucking up our word processors. Warnings from tech executives, educators, and politicians range from science fiction-like world takeovers to mass job losses. 

In January Congressman Ted Lieu introduced a resolution pushing Congress to regulate the technology, and to illustrate the urgency, he had the resolution written by AI. The five paragraphs ChatGPT returned became the first-ever federal legislation generated by artificial intelligence

In May, Lieu co-sponsored a bill whose name both explains its purpose and raises eyebrows: The Block Nuclear Launch by Autonomous Artificial Intelligence Act.

But as a writer and educator—whose job is already apparently being made obsolete—I set out to explore the lesser concerns of AI. 

I started with several OpenAI chats, and there’s definitely an element of creepiness just in the sophistication of the writing, which appears even well copyedited. It sounds more like a human talking than a computer. Even when it has no answer, OpenAI displays personality beyond “That does not compute.”[1]

Equally impressive (in a scary way?) is the breadth of information AI comes up with. It knows a lot, or has access to a lot of data. AI is at very least a tool writers and researchers will use to identify overlooked points.

Quick Test 1:

Question: Who was the first person to circumnavigate the earth?

OpenAI: The first person to circumnavigate the earth was Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer, although he did not complete the entire journey himself.

Question: Can you circumnavigate the earth but not complete the journey?

OpenAI: I apologize for the confusion caused by my previous response. You are correct, circumnavigating the Earth means completing the journey of traveling around the world in a continuous eastward or westward direction, eventually arriving at the starting point.

I was impressed, though part of me wanted to ask whether you can circle the globe traveling northward or southward, and also why "Earth" was suddenly capitalized.

Instead, onward.

Quick Test 2:

Question: Who was Antonio Pigafetta?

OpenAI: Antonio Pigafetta was an Italian explorer and chronicler who is best known for his participation in the first circumnavigation of the globe led by Ferdinand Magellan. Pigafetta was born in Vicenza, Italy, around 1491. In 1519, he joined Magellan's expedition, which aimed to find a western route to the Spice Islands (present-day Indonesia) by sailing westward.

This opening of OpenAI’s five-paragraph answer gives a cleanly worded encyclopedia-style answer. The information is factually correct, though nuance issues pop up. For instance, the phrase “… the first circumnavigation of the globe led by Ferdinand Magellan” has problems, since Magellan was killed halfway and never “led” a circumnavigation—Magellan planned to find the Spice Islands, shop, then return the way he came. All the same, this opening is more accurate than many write-ups on Pigafetta that make the same mistake.

Larger problems emerged in this next question.

Quick Test 3:

Question: Who was Enrique of Malacca?

OpenAI: Enrique of Malacca, also known as Henrique or Henrique de Malacca, was an African slave who served as a translator and interpreter for the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan during the early 16th century. Not much is known about his background or early life, but it is believed that Enrique was originally from the region of Malacca, which is located in present-day Malaysia.

Error 1: Enrique was not an African slave, at least not the historical character. I regenerated this question several times, and this was the only instance where Enrique was identified as African. Other answers were accurate on this point. 

Error 2: Generally, an interpreter deals with spoken language in real-time while translation is changing written content into another language. Enrique as we know him from history was strictly an interpreter. Confusion between the two terms is common, however, and Enrique is often mistakenly called a translator, including in write-ups on the new film 1521 starring Danny Trejo, a mistake obscured by the glaring inaccuracy of the film’s making Enrique a Spanish soldier instead of a Malaccan slave.

Here’s a similar answer received for the same question. 

Enrique of Malacca, also known as Henrique or Henry the Black, was a Malay slave and interpreter who played a significant role in the early Portuguese exploration of the world. Not much is known about his early life, but it is believed that he was originally from Sumatra or Malacca (present-day Malaysia) and was captured by the Portuguese in a raid on the island of Bintan in 1511.

This one gets it right on Enrique’s ethnicity and place of origin, but breaks down from there. Enrique played little or no role in Portugal’s exploration; he made one fast journey from Malacca to Lisbon with the Portuguese in 1512–1513. And he was likely captured in Malacca during the Portuguese invasion of that city. Bintan is an island just south of Singapore where Malacca’s Sultan Mahmud fled following the Portuguese takeover. Which leads us to …

Quick Test 4:

Question: Was Enrique of Malacca captured on Bintan?

OpenAI: No, Enrique of Malacca was not captured on Bintan. Enrique of Malacca, also known as Henrique or Henrique de Malaca, was a slave and interpreter who accompanied the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan during his voyage to the East Indies in the early 16th century. Enrique was originally from the island of Malacca (now part of Malaysia).

Much better, yes, except that Malacca is not an island.

For the moment, such errors will serve as evidence of AI use on take-home exams and term papers, but in time they’ll be fixed and teachers will be forced to change the way they test students.

Takeaway 1: Term papers and essay questions are not just about demonstrating knowledge; they are brain exercises in themselves. The process of synthesizing information and forming it into paragraphs is itself learning. Teachers will have to find ways to preserve this form of drill.

Takeaway 2: Students now smiling about this great tool that’s going to make college easy may soon find themselves sequestered in classrooms and forced to write by hand in cursive writing that other people can actually read, an art lost to many millennials who grew up with keyboard and phones.[2] And the joke may be on them if their teachers then use AI to grade their work.

Anyhow, for anyone curious here’s the full OpenAI answer on Antonio Pigafetta:

Antonio Pigafetta was an Italian explorer and chronicler who is best known for his participation in the first circumnavigation of the globe led by Ferdinand Magellan. Pigafetta was born in Vicenza, Italy, around 1491. In 1519, he joined Magellan's expedition, which aimed to find a western route to the Spice Islands (present-day Indonesia) by sailing westward.

During the voyage, Pigafetta served as the official chronicler and kept a detailed journal of the events he witnessed. His writings provide invaluable information about the voyage and are one of the primary sources of knowledge about Magellan's expedition. Pigafetta documented the geography, ethnography, flora, fauna, and encounters with indigenous peoples throughout their journey.

Despite the death of Magellan in the Philippines in 1521, Pigafetta continued the voyage and eventually returned to Spain in 1522 aboard the surviving ship, the Victoria. His journal, titled "Relazione del primo viaggio intorno al mondo" (Account of the First Voyage Around the World), was published in 1524 and became a significant historical document. It provided valuable insights into the circumnavigation and the cultures encountered along the way.

Pigafetta's work influenced subsequent explorations and navigations, contributing to the advancement of geographical knowledge during the Age of Discovery. His writings have also helped researchers understand the historical context and the challenges faced during early circumnavigations.

The copyeditor in me can’t let this final clip go without comment. (1) “Despite” the death of Magellan? (2) Nuance: Two ships, the Victoria and the Trinidad, survived to the point where Pigafetta departed. (3) Still provides. (4) “Explorations and navigations”—overkill. 

So there, artificial intelligence! Take that!


1. Spoiler Alert: OpenAI dos not give stock tips (see video).

2. I stopped writing by hand when I was in college and in my forties was forced to write in pencil to take the CBEST examination for a teaching credential in California. The experience was mentally and physically painful.

By John Sailors,

Enrique of Malacca's Voyage

(C) 2023 by John Sailors. All rights reserved.

See also:

Map of Enrique of Malacca's circumnavigation
Map of Enrique of Malacca's circumnavigation: Malacca, Lisbon, Seville,
Rio de Janeiro, Puerto San Julián, Guam, Limasawa, Cebu.[1]

On March 28, 1521, Enrique of Malacca became the first person to complete a linguistic circumnavigation of the globe—he traveled so far in one direction that he reached a point where his own language was spoken. Enrique’s journey began a decade earlier following the sack of Malacca, when he was taken as a slave by Ferdinand Magellan. A teenager, he accompanied Magellan back to Portugal, then to Spain, and finally on the Armada de Molucca to locate a westward route to the Spice Islands. More about Enrique of Malacca.

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