On Tuesday, New York City public schools banned ChatGPT from school devices and WiFi networks. The artificial intelligence-powered chatbot, released by OpenAI in November, quickly gained a foothold with the public — and drew the ire of concerned organizations. In this case, the worry is that students will stunt their learning by cheating on tests and turning in essays they didn’t write.

ChatGPT (short for “generative pre-trained transformer”) is a startlingly impressive application, a sneak preview of the light and dark sides of AI’s incredible power. Like a text-producing version of AI art (OpenAI is the same company behind DALL-E 2), it can answer fact-based questions and write essays and articles that are often difficult to discern from human-written content. And it will only get harder to tell the difference as the AI improves.

“While the tool may be able to provide quick and easy answers to questions, it does not build critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, which are essential for academic and lifelong success,” Jenna Lyle, a spokesperson for New York City public schools, wrote in an email to NBC News. Still, the organization may have difficulty enforcing the ban. Blocking the chatbot over the school’s internet network and on lent-out devices is easy enough, but that won’t stop students from using it on their own devices with cellular networks or non-school WiFi.

OpenAI is developing “mitigations” it claims will help anyone identify ChatGPT-generated text. Although that’s a welcome move by the Elon Musk-founded startup, recent history isn’t exactly rife with examples of big business putting what’s best for society over the bottom line. (Relying on AI powerhouses to self-regulate sounds as foolproof as trusting the fossil-fuel industry to prioritize the environment over profits.) And artificial intelligence is big business: OpenAI has reportedly been in talks to sell shares at a $29 billion valuation, making it one of the most valuable US startups.

OpenAI logo displayed on a phone screen and ChatGPT website displayed on a laptop screen are seen in this illustration photo taken in Krakow, Poland on December 5, 2022. (Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
NurPhoto via Getty Images

Not everyone in the education community is against the AI chatbot. Adam Stevens, a teacher at Brooklyn Tech who spent years teaching history at NYC’s Paul Robeson High School, compares ChatGPT to the world’s most famous search engine. “People said the same thing about Google 15 or 20 years ago when students could ‘find answers online,’” he toldChalkbeat. He argues that the bot could be an ally for teachers, who could use it as a baseline essay response, which the class could work together to improve upon.

Stevens believes the key is to invite students to “explore things worth knowing” while moving away from standardized metrics. “We’ve trained a whole generation of kids to pursue rubric points and not knowledge,” he said, “and of course, if what matters is the point at the end of the semester, then ChatGPT is a threat.”

No matter how schools handle AI bots, the genie is out of the bottle. Barring government regulation (unlikely in the near future, given the US Congress’ current trajectory), AI-powered answers, essays and art are here to stay. The next part, dealing with the potential societal fallout — including the automation of more and more jobs — will be where the real challenges begin.