Skills that go beyond the capacities of artificial intelligence.


Students across Australia have started the new school year using pencils, pens and keyboards to learn to write.

In workplaces, machines are also learning to write, so effectively that within a few years they may write better than humans.

Sometimes they already do, as apps like Grammarly demonstrate. Certainly, much everyday writing humans now do may soon be done by machines with artificial intelligence (AI). The predictive text commonly used by phone and email software is a form of AI writing that countless humans use every day.

According to an industry research organisation Gartner, AI and related technology will automate production of 30% of all content found on the internet by 2022. Some prose, poetry, reports, newsletters, opinion articles, reviews, slogans and scripts are already being written by artificial intelligence.

Literacy increasingly means and includes interacting with and critically evaluating AI. This means our children should no longer be taught just formulaic writing. Instead, writing education should encompass skills that go beyond the capacities of artificial intelligence.

“Our children should no longer be taught formulaic writing. Writing education should encompass skills that go beyond the capacities of artificial intelligence.”

‘Back to basics, or further away from them?’
After 2019 PISA results (Programme for International Student Assessment) showed Australian students sliding backwards in numeracy and literacy, then Education Minister Dan Tehan called for schools to go back to basics. But computers already have the basics mastered.

Three major reports — from the NSW Teachers’ Federation,the NSW Education Standards Authority and the NSW, QLD, Victorian and ACT governments — have criticised school writing for having become formulaic, to serve NAPLAN (the National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy).

In some schools, students write essays with sentences fulfilling specified functions, in specified orders, in specified numbers and arrangements of paragraphs. These can then be marked by computers to demonstrate progress. This template writing is exactly the kind of standardised practice robot writers can do.

Are you scared yet, human?
In 2019, the New Yorker magazine did an experiment to see if IT company OpenAI’s natural language generator GPT-2 could write an entire article in the magazine’s distinctive style. This attempt had limited success, with the generator making many errors.

But by 2020, GPT-3, the new version of the machine, trained on even more data, wrote an article for The Guardian newspaper with the headline “A robot wrote this entire article. Are you scared yet, human?”

“…AI writing is said to have voice but no soul. Human writers, as the New Yorker’s John Seabrook says, give “colour, personality and emotion to writing by bending the rules”. Students, therefore, need to learn the rules and be encouraged to break them.”

Robots have voice but no soul.
Back at school, teachers experience pressure to teach writing for student success in narrowly defined writing tests. But instead, the prospect of human obsolescence or “technological unemployment” needs to drive urgent curriculum developments based on what humans are learning AI cannot do — especially in relation to creativity and compassion.

Creativity and co-creativity (with machines) should be fostered. Machines are trained on a finite amount of data, to predict and replicate, not to innovate in meaningful and deliberate ways.