UTSA professor welcomes use of AI

Haley Aguayo, Staff Writer

The newest and most accessible form of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is known as ChatGPT, which is an acronym for chat generative pre-trained transformer. ChatGPT can be used for a number of actions, but it is best known for communicating with its user. One user who has benefited from its use is AI enthusiast Ryan McPherson.

McPherson is a communication professor at UTSA. He teaches online courses and has become the communications department’s designated go-to guy when it comes to the digital world since the COVID-19 pandemic forced all faculty and students to move online.

“AI is good, but I think that because I just love thinking about the future,” McPherson said. Despite his fascination and personal appreciation for AI, McPherson can understand why people may be apprehensive to use it. For one, some teachers see a source like ChatGPT as a means to cheat, while others like McPherson see it and even recommend it as a personal tutoring tool for students.

“People have always cheated,” McPherson said. “It happens. People make mistakes. Humans make mistakes. Humans are prone to bad decisions. [AI] does not change human nature. Does it make it easier to cheat? Yeah, definitely. Does it make it easier to make bad choices and make those bad choices have a faster impact? Maybe.” 

To draw similarities between AI and existing digital platforms, Mcpherson pointed out how social media may impact people in the same way that AI does when it comes to the issue of cheating. 

You may make a bad choice on social media and all of a sudden you’re screwed because it got recorded,” McPherson said. “Of course, new technologies can accelerate bad choices in ways that are frankly scary, right?”

On March 14, ChatGPT was upgraded from its previous GPT-3.5 software to the latest GPT-4 software. The system update included an addition of 7,000 words to its vocabulary, a faster response rate and the ability to multitask, meaning the system is capable of scanning the internet while composing a response at the same time. GPT-4 was upgraded to be multimodal which gives users the opportunity to use pictures, videos and audio to communicate with the updated version of the AI system.

“That’s the thing about the speed of acceleration,” McPherson said. “The speed of any evolution of this technology is game-changing for every industry. Because, you know, it’s not just this or that, it’s multimodal,” McPherson said.“Back before last year, it was going to be amazing. We didn’t know how fast it was because the previous version was pretty darn revolutionary and interesting and fun.”

McPherson further detailed how ChatGPT can be used for a variety of purposes, not just education. “So, if you got a leaky sink, you go, you take a picture, and then it’ll show you a video on how to fix your sink. Think about the applications of that kind of artificial general intelligence on our labor force. That’s huge. That’s not just writers. That’s not just professors. That’s not just knowledge workers. That’s everyone.” McPherson said. 

According to McPherson, a user can ask the program to explain a math problem as if the user was a fifth grader, or users can take a picture of the food in their fridge and it will provide links and videos for recipes that one could use. 

ESL students can benefit from using ChatGPT as well. They can use it as a translation tool in their writings or just in general. You can also find AI therapists if you do not feel like speaking to someone in person. 

McPherson implements the usage of AI within his classes and is even utilizing some of its tools to help build a syllabus for his upcoming podcast class that he will be teaching online in the fall.

“Imagine how much better life would be if we could give personalized education,” McPherson said. “Personalized instruction in the form of tutors to help the professors and students alike, and whenever I see my students struggling with, you know, jobs, families, mental health issues, a gazillion other things going on in life. Like, if we can give them more tools to help them learn better, why not use a tool? ChatGPT is the new Google.”

“What ChatGPT essentially is, and this is, this is one of those things I didn’t know last year, but I know now it’s a neural network that is basically a mirror,” McPherson said. “And it’s mirroring us. And it’s mirroring the best of us, which is why it’s so exciting. So what appears to be a reasoning machine might actually have reasoning capabilities soon because of the way that they can layer these neural networks, and improve the outputs and from the inputs.”

It all comes down to prompt engineering. Prompt engineering is the tactic of wording a question or conversation to AI to receive an answer that one may find suitable and reasonable. If you were to use ChatGPT to help write an essay on politics, because AI mirrors humans, you will get what you put in.

If your wording seems to lean left, you’ll get help from articles from sources like CNN, if you lean right, you’ll get articles from sources such as FOX News. As McPherson stated earlier, it’s all about input and output and despite there being an intelligence behind it, it is still artificial and it was created by humans.

“And that’s kind of the bulk of human error, right? Because like, we were talking about prompt engineering, like, you can have, like an extreme left-wing or extreme right-wing type and certain words that might catch you know, chatting between you to lead you to this misinformation.”

“This levels up misinformation,” McPherson said. “But this is here, it’s here. Students are in a much better position. Being a student and learning this kind of technology and how it applies with what they’re learning in classes is great.” 

McPherson utilizes ChatGPT in his own classroom. For example, he used it as help to create a survey for an integrated marketing education plan in one of his public relations classes which was a safe outlet for his students to use.

“So that was a real safe application, having it, giving it parameters and then having it generated based on those parameters of survey questions,” McPherson said. “So that’s why I’m not teaching survey question writing in my courses much. It’s just a support skill. And even if I was teaching survey support writing more detail-oriented, I would totally still use this right, you know, I would still ask them to use this because why not, you know, the other way is for feedback.”

The way he instructed his students to utilize ChatGPT when writing their surveys in his class was to give it a specific role. “You’d say something like ‘you are an award-winning writer, please give me feedback on this based on the criteria I’ve given you’ and it gives feedback really well. And not only that but think about it, like I only have so much time in the day for my, you know, 80 students in one class, right? And even if I have a TA, we’re still, we still got a lot of work, right? It’s still a lot. So having them do that first before they turn something in. That’s fantastic. Because they’re seeing feedback that could help them on their paper.”

He said that he’s even talked to his TA about this and requested that she task ChatGPT with the same internship projects that she’s been tasked with in the past to see how ChatGPT would respond “and it totally knocked that out of the park.”

Although an AI source can manage all these tasks, he reminds people that AI is not as advanced as rumor has it. 

McPherson also compared AI to its earlier creation known as the Turing Machine, which was a machine that would transcribe and translate symbols used by German soldiers during WWII.

“It’s like a Turing machine. Once a machine can convince us that it actually has the capacity for consciousness, it convinces us that it’s human. Returning customers are convinced that you’re talking to a human and not a machine.” 

McPherson’s point was that humans have been using intelligent programs for nearly 100 years, so he hopes that people will embrace them more in the future.

Even though AI programs are far more advanced than they ever have been in the past, they still do not surpass mirroring the intelligence of a human.

McPherson is not the only professor in the communications department who believes that AI can be a beneficial tool for students. Professor Charles Wright has also advocated for AI being a useful tool for students and has mentioned that as a professor, if he did not move with technology, then he’d be left behind. 

“People in the communications department — we’re very innovative,” McPherson said. “Unfortunately, for better or worse, we’re in this world, and those who fail to adapt are left behind,” McPherson said.“The trains have already left the station, so start running, but don’t think it’s just as simple as you have to run and catch up. It’s what you do once you’re on the train that matters.”