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How are traditional reading skills changing in the age of AI?

The importance of critical reading in the age of AI

Alexa will find you a recipe for the best potato salad. Siri will dial your friend’s number for you. A friendly customer care bot will solve the problem with your Amazon order at 2 am… We are in the middle of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and already take the ubiquitous presence of AI in everyday life for granted. We are told that the transformations we are going through will have the most profound effect on the way we live, work and learn. With AI making our life more convenient and automation saving us from boring repetitive tasks, not only job market will change in a way we can’t fully fathom yet, but also the basic skillset of the young generation.

The impact of AI software being readily available to any internet user can be already observed in education and is greatly reflected in students’ attitudes to learning. I once witnessed a student, struggling with a maths problem, asking his trusty Siri to find him the answer online. Or why not dictate your class assignment to your computer, without worrying about punctuation and spelling, and then have it read back to you. Better still, ChatGPT can write it for you in a matter of seconds. (Even though more and more teachers warn students not to use it for homework and display “Use ChatGPT and get busted!” notes in classrooms.) It will also summarise and read this thick novel for you if you’re in a hurry or you can’t be bothered to read it yourself. This approach, partially caused and fuelled by the admiration and awe for the ability of AI to perform tasks for us, is both dangerous and misconstrued. It might be every school child’s fantasy not to have to read, write and count, but the truth is that those skills might be even more important than ever, especially when combined with other qualifications. Reading, and critical reading in particular, will remain one of essential skills to master. But, one might ask, do we still need to read and process lengthy portions of texts if an AI program can summarise it for us in a matter of seconds? The answer is obviously yes. In this era of unprecedented technical innovation, we run the risk of giving up our wonderful intellectual potential for the sake of convenience. It’s so easy to delegate more and more thought processes to machine intelligence but the consequences can be difficult to overestimate - lulled into a false sense of comfort, we are surrendering the power of our brilliant human mind and its amazing capacity of learning and re-learning to advanced computer systems. You don’t need to be obsessed with dystopian movies to wonder what might happen if we allow machines to think for us, interpret our emotions, tell us what to believe and what to feel. But there is a remedy - regular intellectual stimulation, growth mindset and practicing critical thinking and critical reading.

Critical reading, encompassing a range of advanced reading skills, is not only about information and doesn’t necessarily mean being “critical” of what we read. It is about engaging in what we read beyond basic comprehension, exercise your judgement drawing our own conclusions about the text and critical reading. We read to understand bits of information and communicate with the world but the true essence of reading as human activity is to respond to the written word – with our emotions, creativity of individual insight, and ability to draw our own conclusions. This is why critical thinking, problem solving and language awareness have become essential and will remain top of the list of the modern skillset, especially for the young generation of readers.

It seems, after all, that exasperated teachers can stop and breathe for a moment before they put up another “AI software use is plagiarism” poster. Earlier this year, a group of tech experts tested the creative abilities of ChatGPT against human skills and published their findings in a paper titled, So what if ChatGPT wrote it? In the International Journal of Information Management. They univocally concluded that AI is not (yet) capable of creative thinking akin to human, quoting “absence of originality” as the most evident way to potentially identify AI-generated written work. Overall, the AI performance turned out to be somehow disappointing-and even “a good prompt appeared not to be enough” for it to create something completely new, instead of and merely combining and reshaping already existing data. We can’t help but conclude that the power of the human mind, the spark of human creativity, human experience and skills cannot be replicated by technology. We all are better critical readers and thinkers than the newest version of any AI software but it is our responsibility to cultivate those skills every day.

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