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[LAUGHS]: We’re going to start the show in just a second. But first, I want to tell our listeners about another “New York Times Podcast” that I think they might enjoy.
Why don’t you tell me about a podcast?
Sure. So this show is called “First Person.” It’s hosted by Lulu Garcia-Navarro. And this week’s episode is a sort of “Hard Forky” episode. It’s an interview with this guy named Kyle Wiens. Do you know Kyle Wiens?
Yeah. He’s the CEO of iFixit. Right?
Correct. Yes. iFixit, the website that basically teaches you how to fix your gadgets. And he’s also become a major figure in this movement that’s known as right to repair. You know right to repair?
Yeah. It’s the basic idea that if you own a gadget that you should be able to fix it, and it shouldn’t be up to the manufacturer of that thing whether you can fix it or not.
Right, which sounds pretty obvious but has been a topic that has been very contentious in the tech industry for a long time. Lots of companies, including Apple, have fought this sort of right to repair movement. And Kyle has become sort of the leader of that movement. And recently he got a big victory when New York State passed its new Right to Repair Law, which is the first such law in the country. It basically requires tech companies to make it easier for you to fix the stuff that they sell you, so that you don’t have to keep buying new phones, and new phones, and new phones, and filling up landfills, so really interesting conversation. And I think listeners of this show will enjoy it. So go check it out. It’s called “First Person.” You can find it in your podcast app. Let’s get start with the show. [MUSIC PLAYING]
I’m Kevin Roose. I’m a tech columnist at “The New York Times.”
I’m Casey Newton from “Platformer.”
This week on the show, a high school English teacher tells us how ChatGPT has already transformed her school, why Gen Z is obsessed with 20-year-old digital cameras —
— and our exclusive review of the hit new horror movie and living meme, “M3GAN.”
Oh, hi. How are you?
Doing well. How are you?
I’m very good.
Would you just start by introducing yourself to our listeners?
OK. Well my name is Cherie Shields. I’ve been a high school English teacher for 30 years. Currently I’m teaching in Oregon, in a little town called Sandy. And I have been at this current school that I met — did you hear my bell ringing? Isn’t that nice? I’m actually at my school. There goes the bell.
But, yeah. And I have been teaching creative writing, college credit English, and currently advanced ninth grade English, which is just basically the regular English but souped up a little bit.
Well, the sound of the bell means that class has begun. And we are excited to pepper you with questions.
Yeah. So we wanted to talk with you, Cherie, because you are using ChatGPT, this new AI tool, in your classroom. And right now it seems like a lot of the education world is scrambling to try to figure out what to do about tools like these.
Some districts, including New York City Public Schools, have banned ChatGPT, saying that it’s just a tool for students to cheat on their homework and have the AI write their essays for them. Other schools are trying to adapt and make their curriculum more ChatGPT friendly. So I guess my first question for you is, how did you hear about ChatGPT. And once you learned about it, how long did it take before you started using it in the classroom?
Oh, a matter of days. I learned about it on a Friday and I was using it by Monday. I spent the entire weekend fooling around with it. My son actually brought it to my attention. He’s a teacher, as well, and he teaches tech at the high school he teaches at.
And he says, hey, have you heard about this? And I’m like, well, I haven’t. And so it literally just took a few seconds to get the basics of it. I watched a few videos. But it really didn’t take much of a learning curve at all to become pretty good at using it.
And was your first thought on using this like, this will definitely be useful in my classroom? Or did you have any anxiety about what it might be?
No. I said, this is going to be amazing. We’re going to use this in the classroom. So one of the first things I did was I asked it to write an essay. And to be quite frank, the essay was not very polished. It was rough around the edges. It was very generic.
I had to tweak it, I mean, with my advanced questioning skills. I really had to go in there and tweak, tweak, tweak, tweak, tweak to get it to do what I wanted it to do to present even what I would consider like, a basic C paper. So most students, I don’t know if they would have the skills to go in and get it to write what they needed to write.
And what were you trying to get at to write? And how did you tweak it?
Yeah, let me tell you. So I have two short stories that I like to compare-contrast, which is “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin, and “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. And they both talk about repression in women’s society in the 1880s. And also there are some mental health aspects to it.
And so what I want was I wanted a three to four page paper. Right? And this doesn’t produce a three to four page paper. It only produces at most about five paragraphs. I asked it to do a compare-contrast on certain things. And I went in and asked it to do it on how the husbands treated the wives, how society’s demands and expectation — all these different things — expectations were similar or different between the two stories.
And I had to get it to write about, I’m going to say, eight different essays in order to get all of the elements in the essay that I wanted it to write. So one of the things that we have to do is to teach students questioning strategies. And they’re going to have to learn how to go in there and say, well, that didn’t produce what I wanted. Now, how am I going to ask it to produce what I want? And that’s not really what I’m — that’s giving me something I don’t want. But what could I do to make it give me something I want?
And I’m going to tell you you’d spend about 30 minutes trying to get it to put out a halfway decent, very short essay. But during that time, their questioning strategies are — they’re going to have to develop them. They’re going to have to know what they’re talking about. They’re going to have to ask it questions. They’re going to have to be very specific. So they would have had to pay attention and read both of those stories, and listen to — we do close readings in the class — and take their notes and go back into the chat and say, according to my notes, let’s see, this is in there. And then they’d have — you know what I mean? And so they’d have to do a lot of setup in order to get it to even produce an “eh” essay.
Well, so I read “The Yellow Wallpaper” in high school, and I imagine I had to write something about it. And to the extent that I learned anything from that process, it was in sort of, I guess, the reading comprehension and understanding what I wrote, trying to maybe synthesize an argument, getting it down on paper. You’re talking about a world where we may be moving towards students asking a language bottle to just kind of make the argument for them.
And I have to say, I hear that and my ears prick up a little bit. And I say, mm, are we going to be losing something if the game is to teach students how to ask questions of the AI rather than to synthesize their own argument. So how have you been thinking about that?
I think about that. When we do the preliminary work for that essay we do a lot of stuff in the classroom through discussion, through think-pair-share, through writing short responses by hand and turning them in, and then throwing those out to the class for further discussion. So all of that’s still taking place in the classroom, all of those elements.
One of the nice things about Chat is that it just — it’ll put out what we’ve already been talking about. It’s not giving them anything new, but it may be organizing it in a way that they can go, oh, I understand. For instance, compare-contrast has a very strong organizational method that they have to do. They either have to choose block method or point by point method.
And so Chat can actually give them an outline that will help them with the organizational structure. So it’s not really about the arguments maybe so much as it is this is how I’m going to organize my essay. And I can put what I know from our class discussions and from my notes, that I’m going to put that into this structure. And so that’s what I’m hoping to use it for is more as a skeleton, more as a scaffold to help them with feedback. That’s what I’m hoping for.
Mm-hmm. And just walk us through how you’ve used this in your classroom. What does a day’s class look like where you and your students are all using ChatGPT together in the classroom?
Yeah. So since it’s so new — this is literally only about the third day. Right? So it hasn’t been a ton of experience with it. One of the things — one of my freshman were just working on an essay where we were talking about Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. And we were using certain techniques, like he uses repetition, and metaphor, and simile, and descriptive language, and all of these sorts of things.
And so we already talked about that. The students identified all of that stuff themselves. They underlined. We have the text, they annotated it. And then they had to go through and pick another piece by a different person, and they had to do, again, another compare-contrast where they said, so which one of these two do you think have the better persuasive element.
So they have to use their evaluative techniques to say, well, this persuasive technique, this language helped me change my mind about something. I really thought differently about this after I read the speech because of these language techniques. So identifying what the language techniques are is a nice way so they can say, oh, repetition, metaphor, simile. But then they have to go in and find them. And then they have to go in and do an evaluative process and say why this one is better than that one.
So it’s going to be a step. And the one problem that you have is you have to say you can only use it for this. I’m going to give you five minutes to generate a list of techniques used in the speech. Right? If that’s all you want them to do, then that’s it. And then they have to close their computers. And then they’re going to have to go back to paper and pen, and they’re going to have to write out the response after they get that list.
The other thing it does is it’s really helpful for generating lists of things, outlines, gosh, prompts. One of the worst things I have is having a student come up and I’ll give them a topic, a general topic. And they’ll say, I don’t know what to write about. And I’ll say, OK, well — so we go through and we have literally 20, 30 minute conversations about what they want, what they want to do know.
Yeah. Journalists have that problem too, by the way. Our editors are always asking us what we want to write about. And that’s usually when we change the subject.
Yeah. And so it’s really hard. And sometimes when a student sees it, and they can pick it out of a list or they can pick it out of a general set, they can say, ooh, I didn’t know I could write about that or that looks interesting. Maybe I’ll give that a try. And so they can tweak it and say, nothing on that list looks good to me. And I’ll say, well, what’s the least boring thing in this list. Let’s make another list.
And so we can generate — gosh, you can generate lists so fast. You can generate information so fast. You can take one kernel of something you find and you can make a whole new list out of that. And then what we have to do, as educators, we have to put the emphasis more on the process of writing, and then having them write the piece, and then thinking about how am I going to have my students write this so they don’t have access to ChatGPT — so they don’t have access to the computer while they’re creating or drafting — but how can I use this as a stepping point. How can I use this as a stepping stone?
I don’t know if you are aware of this, but it can also create lesson plans. It generates lesson plans. And it can evaluate writing. So one of the things I asked it to do last night was I had a student essay. Just for grins I said, evaluate this essay for grammatical and sentence structure. And it did really well.
And it said here’s — and it gave him the strengths. It said, here’s what you’re doing well. And then it said, here are some places to work on. And it even said stuff like, your transitions aren’t very smooth, and your introduction is lacking, and there’s no thesis in this whole essay. I mean, that’s one on one feedback.
It would take me about a week to get through — I have 80 essays to do at a time. So about a week later, I get to give them feedback. But this is going to give them instant feedback. So I might give him 10 minutes to — and I’ll give him the prompt. I’ll say, have this evaluate your essay for ideas and content, or for sentence structure, or for organization, and then go ahead and take that feedback — that personalized feedback — and improve your essay.
I’m curious how good you thought the lesson plans were that it generated for you.
Not bad. They have to be fairly simple. So I’m a creative writer, and one of the things I asked it to do is — we’re going to start a science fiction unit soon, and I asked it to develop a lesson plan about how to create a cool alien character.
Like, how do you go about generating an alien character? And then I put that in there and it spat back out a lesson plan that was more than I expected.
And it went far more into detail than I thought it would. And it really talked about characterization, and about description, and about all the different methods of how to characterize, and then to apply that to an alien, which would be unusual and interesting. And I was just like — wow. This is not what I was expecting, but I’m all for this. And then I went through and kind of tweaked it for what I needed it. But it was very little tweaking, and I was ready to go.
This is all a very rosy picture of ChatGPT in the classroom. And I actually happen to agree with you. I think there are lots of amazing ways that tools like ChatGPT could be used and are being used in classes. But I want to talk about the other side of the coin, too. Because we’ve all been teenagers, we’ve all been students.
And as much as I like to think that I would have only used ChatGPT in the teacher approved classroom ways if I were a teenager today, I also know that there were days — maybe I hadn’t had time to do the reading, or I was feeling a little lazy, or I just wanted to maybe get a better grade — where I would have used ChatGPT to do my homework and passed it off as my own. So how worried are you about students using ChatGPT and tools like it to cheat, to turn in work that they didn’t actually spend much time creating? How worried are you about that?
So not as worried as I had been the last two decades. So being a creative writing teacher, I’ve had video game stories, I’ve had “The Late, Late, Late Show”— somebody watched it, decided that I probably wouldn’t have watched it, and did the whole story of that and turned it in as their story. “She Devil”— do you remember that movie, “She Devil?”
I had an entire — this student wrote this whole story about basically “She Devil.” And I guess they thought that I’d never seen the movie or would never have seen it. Anyway, I’m reading it and I’m like, this is the plot to “She Devil.” I’m pretty sure this is “She Devil.”
And they had just watched that movie and just thought to themselves, OK, Mrs. Shields would never have seen this movie. Of course I have. Even video game plots — they think that — and I play video games. My son and I both been video gamers for since ever. And they try to pass their stories off, their video game plots.
They try to say, let me tell you a legend about someone named Zelda.
Legends about Zelda. Exactly. And I’m like, oh, really? OK.
A plumber and his brother.
Or even anime stuff, which I kind of am familiar with all that stuff. So they’ve been doing that sort of thing, I mean, in terms of creative writing, or taking a poem out of some old book they got off the shelf thinking I would never have seen it, and it’s Tennyson or something. You know what I mean? And it’s like, ah, yeah, I think I’m familiar with this one.
So the kids have been cheating. Kids have been using the internet to cheat. I have seen whole things part of the internet and copied, and pasted, and kind of reworded in a way to where I’m still looking at it going, ugh. And then I’ll even — all you have to do is put a little piece of it in to the internet and you can see it, right? The plagiarism checker, it’ll catch even if it’s just part of it.
The bad thing about AI is the plagiarism checkers don’t catch it because it’s all generated fresh for each student, each time they — so that’s a bad part. There are some new AI generators coming out. There is one that, I guess, just came out but crashed because it was too overused.
You’re talking about the AIs that try to detect AI generated writing.
Yes. Mm-hmm. Yeah. Also, a watermark is being developed. So when students copy and paste anything that’s AI, it’s going to put a watermark. And I don’t know what that’s going to look like, if it’s going to turn it a different color or there’s going to be something behind it or over it that says, “This is AI.” I sure hope so, because then they’re going to have to do something in order to get that watermark removed, which is going to be probably rewriting the whole thing in their own words.
I want to ask sort of a question similar to what Kevin did from another angle, which is maybe you accept that, OK, by the time the kids get to high school there are a lot of really productive ways to use this technology. But I wonder if you think at a younger age it might be a little too dangerous to give them technology that can write a five paragraph essay that’s better than 90 percent of nine-year-olds. Do you think about there maybe being an age threshold that we want kids to reach before we have the AI start writing their assignments?
Absolutely. Yes, I do. I think they should keep it out of the elementary school, for sure, out of even the middle school. And then maybe even the early grades — ninth grade, start introducing them to limited bursts where it’s all controlled. It’s kind of like, hey, here’s what we’re going to use it for.
And, I mean, here’s the thing. If you don’t show them that it can do all these other things, most ninth graders won’t go out of their way to check that out. There’s going to be a few savvy ones that will, but most of them are just going to go, my teacher just showed me how to do this. So I’m just going to do that. Right? So it’s kind of like, if we don’t show them maybe they won’t really use it.
Well, I mean, but just to argue against myself, though, one of the ways that you’ve been talking about using this technology in your classroom is essentially as a personalized tutor for your students. Right? They can show it their work and it can say, hey, you need to work on your transitions or these other issues.
And I think, man, if you’re a nine or 10-year-old and you have a personalized tutor, that’s probably really helpful. Right? And maybe you want to ask it questions about science. You want to understand the Krebs cycle or how osmosis works. That seems like actually a great thing that we probably would want to have in kids hands. Right? I just get a little nervous when I think about it auto completing their assignments.
Yes. I substituted the other day for a Spanish class, and they were doing verb types. And I’m not really in — I don’t the verb types in the Spanish class. And so they’re all doing this lesson about how to say that you take a shower, I take a shower — you know, that whole thing. And I didn’t know.
And so I got this. I said, hey, go to this website, and I didn’t say anything about it. I go, it’s called ChatGPT. And would you ask it to write a report about how to do these verb types in a conversation. And she did. She read the report and she said, OK, I’m good now. And she completed her worksheet.
Now, it didn’t give her the answer, but it gave her how to do it. And she said, that explained it better than the teacher has ever done.
Yeah. There you go.
One thing I’ve been thinking about is I’m really glad that this ChatGPT tool did not exist during the era of COVID remote learning. Because it seems to me like a lot of the solution to the cheating problem is going to be less at homework and more in classwork. Does that strike you as being plausible as a way that teachers are going to respond to the threat of people doing their homework with ChatGPT is just you’re going to do your homework in class instead?
Yes. In fact, our department was having this discussion. And they said, well, maybe we need to have shorter bursts. And so maybe we should move away from the standard essay as a summative tool to test for whatever, and we should move into shorter bursts of writing. So they might take one main idea, develop a paragraph about that, and so they would write it right there in class and turn it in.
And then they might do a connection where the next day they might connect that thought to another thought. You know what I mean? And so it’s going to be smaller bursts of writing where they utilize the concepts with a topic sentence and developing supporting details, and then transitioning into another a possibly another paragraph at another date, so maybe having those smaller skills, and then sitting them down at some point and putting all those skills together into a larger piece of writing, like a full essay. So we were talking about that. We were actually speaking about that.
Are there people at your school who disagree, who think this is too advanced and we need to just ban it entirely?
Yeah. The first reaction was, oh, my gosh. Yeah. The first reaction was, it can do what now. It can have what now. Yeah. And, well, we spent a long time getting over the shock. Because I actually went in to our department meeting and said, did it can do this. Did you know it can also do this? And we I spent a good 15 or 20 minutes just listing all the things it could do. And I’ve been on the videos to look to see about all the different things it can do. Some of it’s awesome. Some of it is, yes, absolutely a student could work this out and turn it in.
One of the teachers got on there and said, well, I just looked up all my questions for “Great Gatsby” and it only got two right. And I was like — so sometimes, and they’ve even said it, the information is incorrect — which means that if you got a page full of answers and two of them are right and the rest are wrong, obviously, that came from somewhere and it was not correct, and the student didn’t read the book. You know? So there’s that.
That’s interesting. It almost makes me wonder if, in the future, tests or take home assignments will have to include — you know the CAPTCHAs that you have to — to do before you log into certain websites to prove that you’re a human? It might include some trap questions that an AI would get wrong but a student who had actually done the reading would get right.
So I’m thinking about if you asked a question on a midterm or something that was like, explain Jay Gatsby’s role in “Tender is the Night,” or just some book that he wasn’t in. And if you asked that question of an AI model, it might actually respond in some confident but totally wrong way —
Wrong way. Yup.
— whereas a student who had done the reading would say, actually, he’s not in that book. He’s from another book.
So do you think you’ll have to start including trick questions like that on exams?
And would you look forward to sort of being a trickster who’s constantly trying to trip your students up?
You know something about us English teachers? We have had to deal with Cliff Notes for decades. And Cliff Notes has all the answers, and so we’ve had to design tests and evaluations that doesn’t include — we read the Cliff Notes and we read all the SparkNotes online. And we go, all right, what’s not here. What can I put in my test?
So we’ve been masters of that for quite some time now. So this is just one more thing that we’ve got to maybe test around. And I think that’s where those in class — I think having discussions, having presentations, having shorter burst assignments, working with questioning strategies, tweaking things, having students be able to go in and learn how to use this informational technology — why shouldn’t we be teaching them how to do this, and learn from it, and use it correctly, and then have a unit where we take all the technology away and say, now you’re going to have to demonstrate that all of this that we’ve been doing is going to have helped you somehow make connections in your writing, and be better at coming up with examples, and smoothing out your sentences, and things like that, that you’ve been shown one on one with the tutor help of this. Hopefully, that’ll translate. But we’ve been hoping for that for all kinds of different methods for a long time. So we’ll just have to see.
I’m curious. Did you use Cliff Notes in high school?
No. I read everything. I was a reader. I read everything.
I definitely used Cliff Notes in high school.
Yeah, I did, too. And as I’m thinking back, I’m sure there were times when it was a substitute for reading at least part of something. But, as I remember — and English was like one of my favorite classes. I was an English major in college, mostly as an excuse to read novels. But there’s so much reading. And trying to keep all of it in your head when you’re sort of coming up on a big midterm is tough.
And so having someone who has sort of already taken the notes for you and can sort jog your memory about these are the major themes, these are the major characters, and having that available at a glance — I didn’t think of it as cheating so much as a resource to use me as I tried to make it through the class. And I’m wondering if, in short order, what kind of think of something like ChatGPT the same way.
And I said that exactly when we were having a discussion in my department. I said, try not to use the word cheating. Because the teacher was like, well, they’re going to have all these ways to cheat. And I said, maybe substitute the word cheating for assistance.
They’re going to have more assistance in their corner. You know what I mean? They’re going to be able to have — and so maybe we just need to relook at that word exactly and say, this is assistance. This isn’t necessarily cheating. And maybe what that’s going to look like is going to be different in the future.
Because already students can just whip out their phones. Every time I teach a class, I get at least four or five people who have bought their phones and verify what I just said. And then I get the little hand that goes up. Yep, she’s right, or you know what, Miss Shields? You forgot something. This is also true. And I’m like, oh, you know, I’ve been dealing —
Oh, that sounds so annoying. Send that kid to the principal’s office.
Oh, yeah. Every single class period.
They need to show some respect to Mrs. Shields.
Yeah. No way, man. They verify everything that I say. And it’s already like that. They’ve already accepted that the internet is all knowing and all powerful, and whatever it says is true and right. Whatever Miss Shields says has got to be verified.
You know, speaking of this tool as an assistant, I wonder if you work with students who are English language learners, and if you’ve sort of considered the promise that a technology like this might have for those folks.
Yeah. I it speaks different languages. And in terms of being able to translate questions and instructions, that’s really helpful. If you just put the instructions in and then ask it to translate it to English, of course, that would be extremely helpful. And it’s going to be right there — the exact thing that we’re working on in class.
If I give a handout, and they put that handout into the chat and then translate it into Spanish, they’ll have both things right in front of them. I can’t see how that would be a bad thing, because then they’ll have both things. Hopefully, they don’t become dependent on that and then don’t move over into learning English but just keep translating everything into their original language. I think that’s really helpful.
One of the things I was telling you about — when you tweak the chat and you tweak something that’s written, it can say rewrite the above essay. Rewrite the above piece into sixth grade level. So if it’s sitting at a 12th grade level and you ask it to revise it into a sixth grade level, that would be really helpful for language learners, to be able to modify those pieces of reading that might be too difficult for them right then and there so that they can understand the gist of it, use different vocabulary words. And then they can see, oh, this word means this and this word over here in this advanced one means that. And these are the two differences between these two words. But I understand this one.
Yeah. There’s a lot of technology that we would love to understand at even a sixth grade level that we’re not quite there about. We talk about quantum computing sometimes on this show, and we don’t know what it is. But we’re confident that maybe someday ChatGPT will tell us.
I need that at, like, a second or third grade level, though. Cherie, I’m with you on all of the potential classroom uses for this. I’m so glad that there are teachers out there like you who are helping students understand these systems. Because I do think that they will need to be able to work with and around these generative AI models as adults. And so it makes a lot of sense to start them on that now.
But I do want to just sort of sound a note of — I don’t know if it’s melancholy here or just — I’m remembering back to my high school English classes, which were some of the most transformative classes of my life, made me want to become a writer. And part of what I loved about English class was just being bad. You write something, a first draft, it’s bad. Your teacher helps you polish it or reshape it. They explain something that maybe you didn’t overlook.
There’s a certain value, I think, in struggle, and improvement, and having to do all of that manually yourself, and the mental processes that triggers. I don’t think that ChatGPT should be banned in schools. But I’m also trying to acknowledge the fact that it does feel different to give a computer a prompt and have it write your essay rather than sitting there and slaving over every word and every sentence, and through that process kind of gradually becoming a stronger and stronger writer. So I guess I’m curious what your thoughts are about that, and when we gain all of these new powers with ChatGPT is there anything that students are at risk of losing?
Oh, yeah. So I have two different classes. One is like the standard English class with a lot of essay writing. The other one’s creative writing, so we do poems. We do short stories. We do all kinds of fun, creative writing projects. And one thing Chat doesn’t do is it doesn’t do creative very well. The poems are bland and flat. The writing lacks description.
So I’m not very worried about students turning in this AI generated creative stuff, because it’s going to be very telling. And, in fact, they’re not going to be likely to turn it in because it’s horrible stuff. Most students who are in my creative writing classes really want to learn how to be descriptive, and how to develop characters and setting. And so that’s what we spend our time on.
One of the things they like to do is sit in class, and write that out. And then we share with each other. And then they take those pieces of writing and they expand on them, just like you said. And we talk about how to develop sentences, and how to make characters more rounded. And that’s a really fun class.
I don’t see that this program is really going to interfere with the creative type class. So I’m not too worried about the creative nature, especially when kids want to be creative. Some of the kids that they’re just in the class and they just need to get these poems out so that they can pass the class, they may use it to write some pretty terrible poems and then try to turn them in.
I guess it’s like anything else. They can go and find an old literary magazine, and copy those poems and try to turn them in. So I think it’s all out there — all the ways that we have that students can take that stuff. The students who want to do it, I think it’s up to the teacher to inspire them to do it. And that’s where good teaching comes in.
Like you were saying — those classes that inspired you, that’s going to be where you have discussions with your teachers and your fellow students. And you leave the class and everyone’s still talking about what you were talking about in class. Those are the moments that you live for.
And that’s what you have to focus on as a teacher, are those moments that we have with our students, in our classes, that inspire them to make and write better than what an AI can just generate for us. And so that’s why I like AI, just for the bare bones, the scaffolding part of it. For me, that’s really important.
Cherie, Miss Shields, thank you so much for joining us. Is there anything else we should talk about?
Well, I just want to say if you’re planning on cheating in Mrs. Shields’ class this year, don’t. Because it will get back to us, and we will talk about it on the podcast.
Oh, good. OK. I hope so. I hope so.
Yeah. Let us be your enforcement arm.
Yeah. OK, I will, because yeah, definitely — well, as this process grows, I may change my mind. I will say that I don’t want them to ever ban it out of my school because it would be a huge resource loss to me. Just things that I have been starting to use it for, I’m starting to become sort of a Chat fiend.
I’m like, wait, let me go to Chat and figure that out. My old sources are like old hat now. And I’m like, no, let’s see what Chat says. And I’m starting to really sort of rely on it and look at it.
Thank you so much for spending your period with us. And we’ll let you get back to class now.
Period 7 — it’s not quite over, and I’m going to walk in there. Then they’re all going to go, “Miss Shields!” And I’m going to be like, yeah, yeah, hi.
No. I’m excited to see them. Yeah.
All right. Well, thank you for your time. We really appreciate it.
Thank you. Yeah.
When we come back from the break, “New York Times” reporter Kalley Huang will tell us why teenagers may be hitting you up for your old digital cameras.
All right. All right. Are we ready? We’re rolling here. Casey can confirm red showing.
12 plus hours of recording time?
That’s great. You brought lunch. Right? We’re doing 12 hours.
Forget my deadline. [LAUGHS]
Beautiful. Kalley Huang, my colleague at “The New York Times,” welcome to “Hard Fork.”
Thanks for having me.
So you had a story that was titled “The Hottest Gen Z Gadget is a 20-year-old Digital Camera.” And I saw this story everywhere. It was in all of my group chats. All of my elder millennial friends were texting each other about it saying like, I got to dig the camera out of the old junk drawer and sell it to some Zoomer for many times what it’s worth. It really seemed to touch a nerve. And I’m also curious because you are our “Hard Fork” unofficial Gen Z correspondent.
How old are you?
22? Wonderful. So how did you notice that this was a trend?
It started on Instagram, where a lot of things for young people start. I saw a lot of people I posting photos that were obviously not taken with an iPhone, OK, weird people being quirky. And then I saw it being done by kind of the biggest influencers — people like Kylie Jenner, who I think set the tone for a lot of people. And, yeah, I was out at bars and I went to parties where people were bringing around digital cameras. And, on TikTok, the hashtag has hundreds of millions of views, I think.
And what is the hashtag?
Literally just #DigitalCamera.
Wait. Are people actually taking video with these things or they’re just — they’re posting bad photos on TikTok as videos?
People are on TikTok saying, here’s how you get this new aesthetic.
And it’s a digital camera from when they were like, four years old.
And these are not — to be clear, these are not high-end SLR digital cameras. These are like, the Nikon Coolpix with one megapixel from 2003. Right?
Yeah. The Sony Cyber-Shot or like, the Nikon Coolpix — the worst quality, the better. We’re not going for anything professional here.
It’s hard to think of two more 2000 sounding names than Cyber-Shot and Coolpix.
Yeah. As I was reading your story, I was thinking, A, do I have any digital cameras collecting dust in my closet somewhere that I could dust off and resell on eBay, which it sounds like people are doing. There was some data in your story about how the searches for words like Nikon Coolpix are way up year over year. And my second thought was like, how much of this is sincere. Right?
Because I think every kid, every teen, every young person goes through a phase where they get into something that is out of step with their generation. So, for example, when I was in my late teens I thought it would be cool to buy a typewriter. And I started — I can’t believe I’m admitting this on the podcast.
There was a period of maybe six months where I would bring out my typewriter, and type a note to someone, and give it to them.
Wait. What kind of notes?
You know, like would you like to go to the dining hall and get some chicken fingers with me.
And you would deliver these in what, an embossed stationery?
Yeah. It was very annoying. I would just slip them beneath people’s doors. It’s not a period I’m particularly proud of, but this lasts for six months. And eventually it’s kind of annoying because I have to refill the ink. And there’s only one supplier that has the ink for this kind of typewriter.
And I realized like, oh, yeah. Email was invented for a reason. Text messages were invented for a reason. This is way worse than just doing the thing that everyone else does. So how much of this is kind of Zoomers being into the act of taking digital photos and actually the aesthetic of it, or how much of it is just kind of novelty value and kind of retro Y2K nostalgia?
I think a lot of it is the novelty. it feels refreshing to have to take a camera out with you instead of just having everything on your phone. And I think a lot of people are encountering the this is annoying, I have to put ink into my typewriter, in that some people don’t know how to photos onto their phone. If you look at a TikTok video featuring this, people are like, how do I get it on my camera roll. Because it is sort of a foreign item.
You need a laptop. Right? You need an SD card, and you got to hope you have a computer that has the right slot for an SD card on it.
It’s really complicated. And a lot of today’s laptops don’t even have a slot for an SD card. Right? So it’s sort of like, for some people, the complications that you have to go through to get to an objectively bad photo are kind of fun.
Right. And there is sort of the vinyl comparison, where vinyl in a lot of ways is a bigger hassle than any other way you can listen to music, but that becomes part of the charm. So the digital cameras mostly are much worse than the cameras that we have today. But what else defines this aesthetic? And is there anything else about the aesthetic that you think is appealing to younger people?
I think part of it is that you have a lot less control over the photo that you’re producing. I think part of it is also this call back to the Y2K era. When you think of someone like, I don’t know, Paris Hilton or whoever was popular back then, it makes you feel cool when you are emulating them.
And I think part of it is the performance of being casual, and looking silly or effortlessly pretty or whatever and being like, I don’t care that I’m posting these on Instagram when I’m blurry, I’m washed out, maybe it’s a little unflattering. I think that performance of authenticity is a big appeal for some people.
And I feel like we’ve seen this before on Instagram, where people will start to embrace a look that is not perfectly airbrushed. There’s sort of been wave after wave of people rebelling against the sort of beauty standards on Instagram. It seems like there’s just kind of a fundamental tension on that platform where people are tired of having to dress up so much.
Yeah. I think there’s a tension, in particular among young people, to decide how curated you want your online personality to be, how to portray the level of curation that you are seeking. It’s an intentional choice to post a photo where you look bad and washed out. Paris Hilton was not picking which photos the paparazzi published, but Kylie Jenner is picking which washed out photo she’s posting.
Yeah. It’s interesting. A few weeks ago on this show we were talking about this app Lensa, which a lot of people were using to create these magic avatars, the app calls them. And on that app you upload a few higher quality photos of yourself and you come back looking like an astronaut, a wizard, a god. Right? And it’s sort the opposite of what we’re talking about here.
It sort of strikes me as also wanting a time when social media didn’t exist or wasn’t as pervasive as it is now. So I think part of it is wanting to return to — I heard a lot of wanting to return to simpler things.
Yeah, this sort of neo-Luddite sort of feeling. There was a great story in “The Times” a few weeks ago about these teens who just reject all technology. I think they’re in Brooklyn, obviously. But it’s like, it does feel like there’s a sort of niche cohort of young people who are just saying screw all of this. I’m going to read books, and go outside and take walks, and use my Coolpix to capture my moments with my friends.
You know, I sort of have the opposite perspective, where I think all of this is just a way to be on social media and look slightly different, and feel like you’ve adopted an aesthetic that is just a bit ahead of the curve. So, to me, this feels like just as plugged into social media as anything else we talk about on this show.
That’s true, actually. Because it’s not like people are nostalgic for the distribution of the early — no one’s posting these on Flickr. Right? So you’re taking your photo with your old school digital camera, but you’re posting it on TikTok and Instagram. And I don’t know if there’s a way to do it on B-Real or not. But it is not true that people are nostalgic for the actual ways that we consumed information back then. It’s just the camera.
You brought up B-Real. And, to me, B-Real is kind of a way of doing this too, where the whole idea is you’re going to take this photo at a random time each day. You’re probably not going to look that great. You’re probably not doing something that interesting. And so it may come across as more authentic.
I mean, people are not doing photo dumps in Facebook albums. Right?
Right. No one’s drunkenly hung over posting 30 photos from a night out on Facebook. So I think part of this is the presentation of authenticity. Part of it is certainly this is cool, interesting, maybe you’re not looking at your phone as much because you don’t need to to take photos. But I think the flip side of it is that it is still going online. And you are making a choice of how you take the photo, which photo you’re putting online, what kind of appearance you’re projecting.
Here’s my prediction, that if this thing sticks around for a few more weeks, I think it just sort of becomes a filter on Snapchat and Instagram. And here’s your 2000 Coolpix filter, and then we can start leaving the cameras at home again.
But I think there is something. I can imagine it being very cool to be in a bar talking with your friends and then just pull out this hunk of plastic from the early 2000s.
I mean, has it really been so long since any of us have seen a camera that this would be an event if one came out of a purse? I just can’t believe that.
I don’t know. I mean, it sounds like it’s sort of a thing to pull it out when you’re out with your friends.
I think it makes people excited. You’re so used to just someone taking a photo with — I mean, this makes me sound like someone who just came out of the womb. But I think it makes people excited to have an actual camera because it’s more of an event. Yeah. I think you see the same thing happen with film cameras.
Instagram certainly has filters that you can use that make it look like you took something on film. VSCO does. But there’s something about the actual act of taking out the camera I think that is appealing to people.
Let’s see. What will we be nostalgic for in 20 years? What’s something that’s sort of painful that our grandchildren will scramble to do again?
Kalley, any thoughts?
I would not be surprised if it were something like an Apple Watch or something involving the way that we listen to music. I think a lot of this comes for the weird little gadgets that we use now. I don’t know. I mean, it’s hard to imagine a futuristic way of communication. But I bet our iPhones will look like bricks.
Yeah. There will just be some hipster teens like carrying around their iPhone 13 Pros, showing it off to all their friends.
If you sort of — not just bring up the metaverse — but if you believe in a world where we are wearing some sort of virtual reality headsets or maybe using virtual displays inside of those headsets, I could actually see laptops becoming kind of a nostalgia item, where people are walking around with — or maybe laptops will still be around, but people will sort of want them to be styled like laptops in the early 2020s or the 2010s.
Yeah. I mean, Kevin used typewriters. Maybe the people 20 years from now will be using laptops.
I can’t wait until my grandson asks me for a 2013 MacBook Air.
Kalley, thank you.
And when we come back from the break, “M3GAN.”
All right, Kevin, it’s time to talk about my favorite movie going experience of the year so far, “M3GAN.”
I would say the premise of “M3GAN” is that a young girl is given a sentient robot doll by her aunt, who is the doll’s inventor. And the movie is about what happens when the child begins to depend more heavily on the doll and the doll develops some ideas of its own. And you also saw “M3GAN” last night.
What was your feeling about this movie?
So I am not a scary movie guy, like, at all. I am a huge baby. I don’t even really like cliffhanger sort of action movies because they make me too anxious. And I’ve got enough of that in my life. So I was really resenting the fact that you were making me watch this movie to talk about it in the podcast. But I actually, I enjoyed it. I thought it was fun. And I will say I am a terrible person to watch a movie about anything tech-related with, because I just couldn’t stop thinking about AI, and robotics, and which parts were realistic and which parts weren’t.
Were you furiously taking notes on your typewriter about this?
No, but I was taking notes. So what did you think?
Well, so listen. If you show a gay man a life-sized doll who dances and kills people, you’ve got a great movie. Like, you can stop writing the screenplay right there. I have all that I need. So I really enjoyed the movie. It’s extremely fun. It’s funny. Yes, it’s a horror movie, but it’s more of a comedy than anything else.
Yeah. I was expecting to be very scared, and I was not. It’s campy enough that it makes the scary parts less scary.
Right. But so why are we talking about it on “Hard Fork?” This is not a movie review podcast, but this movie is about a lot of things that we’ve been talking about lately. So it’s about artificial intelligence, it’s about what happens when people begin relying on artificial intelligence over human beings, and it’s about fears around screen time, about parenting. There’s a surprising amount of the modern condition, I thought, in this movie. And I think, if you listen to this podcast, you’re probably going to find something to think about in “M3GAN.”
Totally. I think, as a relatively new parent, it gets to the heart of this question of what amount of technology is good for kids and when does it start becoming a problem. I thought it was a little heavy handed. There’s literally a scene where they’re talking about screen time and how much the little girl should get. And it’s decided that M3GAN is a good form of technological interaction, and healthy. And that obviously gets complicated later on.
But I will say I think it really does illustrate just how anxious people are when they give their kids technology — not necessarily that it’s going to melt their brains, but that the technology itself is just going to take on capabilities we didn’t know it had.
Yeah. So I think, at their best, horror movies take some sort of fear in the culture and they make it tangible by turning it into a monster, and then having the monster kill people. And, in a real way, screen time is the monster in “M3GAN.” Right? There is a girl who might have otherwise been interacting with her parents, who I think we can say are tragically killed, like, the opening seconds of the movie.
She could be interacting with her aunt, who has sort of taken her in and become her guardian. But her aunt is very busy at work, and her aunt never stops looking at her phone either. And so what does the little girl turn to? She turns to screen time, and that screen time later goes on a homicidal rampage.
Yeah. I thought it was actually interesting. The other movie I’ve watched in the last couple of weeks is “Glass Onion,” the new “Knives Out” movie, in which the tech world, I would say, is not portrayed positively.
There’s sort of an evil Elon Musk figure at the center of that plot. And then, in “M3GAN,” we have this kind of — it’s not really the central part of the plot, but it is a part of it where this doll, M3GAN, is actually being sort of rushed into production by this, I guess, toy company but sort of tech company. The office looks very Silicon Valley.
It’s run by people who talk the way that tech people talk. And it’s all about speed, and how fast we ship this thing, and we’re not going to program any safeguards into it because we’re just going to throw it out to the world. And who cares if it misfires sometimes? That’s the price of progress. And it’s just such a — we seem to be in such a moment right now of cultural backlash to the way that tech companies have been operating. CASEY NEWTON Oh, yeah. As a Silicon Valley satire, I found it surprisingly on point. There’s a very funny moment where the doll begins talking to the people who built her when she’s not supposed to be. And one of the engineers says, like, didn’t you encode like parental controls. And then the protagonist is like, well, I didn’t have any time.
The number of times that we’ve heard that from tech executives over the years made that, I think, a really satisfying moment to watch.
Totally. And another question I was finding myself thinking about — again, I’m a horrible person to go to a movie with — but I was thinking about just how close or far we are in real life from the technologies that we saw in the movie.
Yeah. Well, so there was an article in “The New York Times” recently about scientists who are trying to do just this, who are trying to make robots that exhibit some signs of consciousness. And while I don’t think anything is quite to the level of M3GAN yet, particularly in terms of interpersonal relations, it’s clear that we’re able to develop devices that are at least in some ways self-aware, have some concept of themselves. And we assume that’s only going to accelerate quickly.
Totally. I was actually impressed. They must have had some AI experts consulting in the writing of the script for this movie. Because they did use phrases like probabilistic inference to describe how M3GAN learns, which is a real thing that exists in AI.
Yeah. And we want to say, good job, “M3GAN” producers.
You did your homework.
If you were the AI consultant for “M3GAN,” please come on “Hard Fork” and tell us about your process. I was thinking, as I watched the movie, about Moravec’s paradox.
No, I don’t know what this paradox is.
OK. Moravec’s paradox, it’s a sort of well-known principle in artificial intelligence and robotics. And it basically says that things that humans find very easy are very hard for machines to do, and vice versa. Things that are very hard for humans sometimes are very easy for machines to do.
A classic example would be like, predict which of these 10 loans is most likely to default. That’s kind of hard for a human, pretty easy for a machine. On the other hand, something like move this cup from one part of the table over to another part of the table — which any human toddler can do — is actually incredibly hard for a robot.
So there were all these moments during the movie where I was thinking — so one thing that Megan does is like explain condensation, the concept of condensation, to the little girl. This is not a spoiler, by the way. This is not a major plot point in the movie. But I was thinking, oh, that’s easy. Siri can do that. ChatGPT can do that. That’s not hard at all.
And then you have these scenes where M3GAN is dancing or moving in some lifelike way. And I’m thinking like, oh, that’s going to take 20 more years and several billion dollars more of R&D before robots can do that.
Yeah. The fluidity of M3GAN’s movements is maybe one of the less realistic things in the movie. But I do think that when it comes to will we be able to use a ChatGPT-like tool in some sort of doll, and that doll has a voice that is fairly human sounding and maybe has some emotion in it — that doesn’t feel all that far away at all. There’s this kind of secondary toy in the movie that’s like the bridge — the first thing that the inventor builds before she invents M3GAN. And it’s just this little fuzzy, furry creature that talks. And it’s like, well, we’re basically already there.
Yeah. And I also think it’s realistic to think that when these dolls with AI built into them exist, children will love them. When I was growing up, I had this doll called Teddy Ruxpin — do you remember Teddy Ruxpin —
Of course I remember Teddy Ruxpin.
— who was just a Teddy bear. But you would —
By the way, I’ve heard Gen Z is taking Teddy Ruxpin out to bars just to impress their friends. But go on.
[LAUGHS]: They’re selling for thousands of dollars apiece. So Teddy Ruxpin, for those of you who don’t know, was basically a Teddy Bear that you would like put a cassette into, and it would read a story, and the mouth would move a little bit. And it was not advanced by any modern measure, but I freaking loved Teddy Ruxpin.
People loved Teddy Ruxpin.
I was so attached. And when it would run out of batteries, I would cry. And that was almost 30 years ago. So I can only imagine what today’s kids are going to think when things like ChatGPT and these large language models are starting to be built into the toys that they use every day.
Yeah. And it just becomes really powerful. It’s like, as powerful as ChatGPT is as a text interface, it’s like, you put it into the shape of a doll and make it talk, it starts to feel like something very different. And all of this AI stuff we’ve been talking about so much just becomes kind of infrastructure for a brand new set of products that might kill us.
Totally. And they also could help us. One of the things that M3GAN actually does in the movie is to basically befriend this little girl, hear her problems, basically act as a therapist.
And I think that’s a question that is sort of on my mind is like, when this kind of thing actually exists, when it’s capable of not only talking at kids but responding to them, will parents let it into their lives and to what extent.
The parts of the movie that were the scariest to me from an AI perspective are when M3GAN starts displaying capabilities that she ever had before, when she started learning on her own. And I really feel that. This is a very different example, but sometimes my Alexa devices in my house will — I’ll ask it a question, and then it’ll answer. And then it’ll say, by the way, did you know I can also help you store recipes?
It’s so horrible. If you’re the Amazon people working on this, you have to stop. When I ask the weather, don’t tell me that it’s time to shop for Father’s Day gifts. OK?
It’s really freaky. And that’s a pretty mundane example, but it’s like, I don’t want you to get smarter.
I bought you because you do kitchen timers, and you tell me the weather and whether I need to bring an umbrella that day. And that is what I need you for. I don’t want you getting smarter. And I think we’re moving into an era where everything in our lives — from our cars to our kitchen appliances to our large language models — is just going to be getting better all the time in the background. And I think that experience is going to freak people out more than the actual capabilities. It’s the improvement in the background when we didn’t ask for it that’s going to be a lot of people’s first scary moment with this stuff.
Yeah. Pretty soon you’re going to open up your refrigerator and it’s like, you know, I could teach you Spanish. And you’re just going to unplug it. You’re going to say, I don’t want this in my life. We need to go back to basics. Go get my Coolpix. I’m out of here.
[LAUGHS]:: I also thought it was interesting — without giving away too much of the plot, one of the sort of themes of “M3GAN”— and I think this goes back not just to other movies about sentient robots, but all the way back to “Frankenstein,” is this idea that you can instruct a robot to do one thing, like protect this little girl, and it will take that instruction very seriously and will accomplish it in ways that maybe you didn’t intend or want. So in AI research this is called the paperclip problem sometimes. Have you heard about the paperclip problem?
I have heard the paperclip problem, but tell our listeners.
So the paperclip problem is this thought experiment that was proposed decades ago by Nick Bostrom, this philosopher. And it basically says that you could build an AI and tell it to make paperclips. That’s its only instruction. And if you give it no further instructions, it will do that.
And it will do that — first it will use all of the metal in the world to create paperclips, so it will take it from factories. It will destroy things. It will destroy cars to get the metal to make paperclips. And then it will effectively kill all the humans on the planet to keep them from fighting their acquisition of metal to make paperclips. And so this robot that you just told to make paperclips ends up destroying the world. And there’s a similar plot line in “M3GAN,” where this robots only instruction is to take care of this little girl. And it does so in increasingly violent and scary ways.
Yeah. And, god, I don’t even know what I have to say about that other than the paperclip problem seems unsolved, man.
Well, I am glad that this kind of thing is making its way into pop culture. Obviously, it’s ridiculous. Obviously, we are a long way away from killer humanoid robots. But I do think this is the moment to start thinking more broadly as a culture about AI. And I think one of the reasons this is really striking a nerve right now is that there is so much anxiety about these tools that just seem to be appearing from these tech companies out of nowhere with sort of very rudimentary safeguards in place. And it just feels like a moment where something is being let out of a bag that might be hard to get back in.
Yeah. Also, It was about a month ago that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors was considering letting armed robots kill crime suspects. And this was not a sci-fi story. This was just up for debate at my local city council, was whether we should use murder robots in police work. So some of this stuff is very sci-fi. But I think what is most interesting about it is that, in a lot of ways, it doesn’t really feel that sci-fi.
Right. No, a lot of this stuff is technically possible. It exists, like the Boston Dynamics robot that you’ve seen videos of. There was this one scene in particular where someone starts pushing M3GAN with this big jousting stick almost, just trying to knock her off balance and see how she recovers.
And that’s almost shot for shot from one of these Boston Dynamics videos, where the researchers are poking these robots with sticks, trying to throw them off balance. Basically, all you need is for someone to take the large language models and jam them into the Boston Dynamics robots. And then you essentially have M3GAN.
Yeah. And, by the way, there’s a moment —
Please don’t do that, by the way, if you’re listening. Very bad idea.
The moment when M3GAN gets down on all fours and runs through the forest and looks like a Boston Dynamics dog, it’s like, one of the greatest transformations in cinema history, as far as I’m concerned.
Yeah. That was terrifying. Yeah. I feel like sci-fi movies used to take place 40, 50, 100 years into the future. And now M3GAN just seems like, yeah, that could happen next year. Google or some other company could come out and say, this is our new — I mean, Tesla is literally building a humanoid robot. Right? That’s one of Elon Musk’s pet projects is he wants to make a lifelike Android robot that can talk, and listen, and do therapy, and move in realistic ways, and do all these things. He is building M3GAN.
Yeah. And he must be stopped at all costs.
“Hard Fork” is produced by Davis Land. We’re edited by Paula Szuchman. This episode was fact checked by Caitlin Love. Today’s show was engineered by Alyssa Moxley. Original music by Dan Powell, Elisheba Ittoop, and Marion Lozano. Special thanks to Hannah Ingber, Nell Gallogly, Kate LoPresti, Jeffrey Miranda, Daniel Bartel, and Dan Savage. He gave us a nice shout out this week in his Savage Love column. He tried to write his column with ChatGBT. It’s a really fun read. Check it out. Thanks, Dan, we love you. You can email us at HardFork@NYTimes.com. That’s all for this week. We’ll see you next time.
See you down the dusty trail.
I want to come up with something else, but I know you told me to stop using it. And I tried to think of an alternative one, and I couldn’t think of one. So —
I’m sorry I brought that stress to your life.
I love your dusty trail, and I love you.
And I’m sorry I criticized you.
I thought about saying something like, that’s all for this week. The solution to today’s Wordle was sedan.