ChatGPT and the Future of Education: A Q&A with George Berg

George Berg stands inside the UAlbany Data Center.
George Berg, College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity.

By Sophie Koutsoftas

ALBANY, N.Y. (Feb. 7, 2023) — You’ve likely heard about ChatGPT, an AI-based chatbot launched by OpenAI that is making headlines for its capability to read and write like a human when prompted.

Since its release last fall, the new tool has caught the attention of school administrators, teachers, parents and students, with questions about how artificial intelligence fits into the classroom. Will it become an aid for teaching and learning? Or will its primary effect be to promote plagiarism and cheating?

George Berg, an associate professor and chair of the Cybersecurity Department at the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity (CEHC), studies artificial intelligence, machine learning, cybersecurity and maker technologies. 

Through Berg’s leadership, CEHC recently hosted a panel discussion at ETEC that examined ChatGPT from multiple perspectives. He was also recently featured as an expert on Fox 5 – NYC and NEWS10 ABC.

We caught up with him to learn more about ChatGPT, AI and the future of education.

ChatGPT is on track to become one of the most popular apps of all time. Why are people so interested in it?

It’s an example of what’s known as “generative intelligence,” which means that it can generate or create answers. You can prompt it with tasks, like writing essays, blog posts, poems, creating scenarios, etc. And it does a good job at most of these tasks. There are some things that it gets wrong, but it is a tool that can do what is tough for many of us — write. To have this easily at our disposal is quite exciting.

What are some examples of how ChatGPT/AI can be used as an educational tool?

It is quite an extraordinary tool for education. In the simplest case, you can use it sort of like a search engine, but one that will answer you back in text. You can also ask it to answer questions, provide draft answers for essays and other writing tasks. As students learn the skills of writing, from the mechanical level of putting good sentences down on paper, on up to organizing a high-level essay, tools like ChatGPT can be very helpful. It’s like having an implicit tutor.

What advice do you have for parents and teachers concerned about cheating, plagiarism and other negative impacts?

Just like with other resources such as the internet, books, Wikipedia and knowledgeable friends, there is definitely a risk of increased plagiarism. While the first temptation might be to ban ChatGPT, and ramp up surveillance in academic settings, I do not think this is the best way to proceed.

As several of my colleagues here at UAlbany — especially Billie Franchini, director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching, Learning, and Online Education and Jennifer Goodall, vice dean of CEHC, have noted, a better approach is twofold — figure out how to structure education and learning so students aren’t feeling the need to cheat, and make ChatGPT part of the classroom experience instead of banning it to take away the “forbidden fruit” attraction.

How should people protect themselves and their privacy from AI and its sources of data?

The effects of AI on privacy could probably be characterized as “more of the same.” With companies and governments collecting increasing amounts of data on us, this has been a growing issue for years. Marketers have been targeting us and our buying habits for more than a generation. And that is with relatively simple techniques to try to guess what we might want to buy, like or do. AI provides a set of very powerful tools to try and anticipate our wants and needs.

I think the advice is to not put anything online, or in the hands of someone outside your immediate circle, that you don’t want widely known. And, of course, keep your personal data on your computers secure and backed up, and use strong passwords and password storage methods.

There is an interesting wrinkle with ChatGPT. I suspect that very quickly we will see these kinds of systems integrated within our office productivity suites, email clients, search engines, etc. They will be able to draft memos, emails, etc. While this will no doubt be very convenient, it also poses several grave privacy risks associated with the use of our personal data.

Outside of education, how else is AI transforming our world?

Education is just one facet. We have already seen AI changing many of the ways things are done. Our credit cards are monitored by AI for fraud. Many email systems use AI to try and spare us from spam. Companies like Lyft and Uber use AI to anticipate demand for their service. Self-driving cars, planes and helicopters are on the horizon. Researchers in many fields use AI to help them sift through large amounts of data and find patterns that may lead to significant discoveries in weather, astronomy, medicine, geology, physics, etc. AI helps determine who can get loans, jobs, parole, etc. And there are many, many more applications out there, and even more coming soon.

One thing we must keep aware of as AI becomes critical in more aspects of our lives, and society in general, is that the decisions it makes reflect our values and do not harbor implicit biases. Also, when AI makes decisions impacting our lives, it must be explainable. We must be able to know why it made the decisions that it did. This will help us grow a healthy relationship with the technology.

For these reasons and others, the University at Albany has dedicated a great deal of resources to AI research and education. Provost Kim is already leading the addition of AI into many of our programs across campus. As just one example, at CEHC, we just introduced a minor in machine learning informatics to help students incorporate these technologies into their studies, no matter what major they choose.