Welcoming Our Computer Overlords to High School

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


Dana Goldstein writes today that very shortly computers are going to lose their ability to efficiently score student writing test samples. Why? Because new tests are going to be more fact-based. Instead of asking students to ruminate on “the benefits of laughter,” they’ll ask students to read a nonfiction passage and write something about it. “Since robo-graders can’t broadly distinguish fact from fiction,” Dana says, they won’t be very good at scoring these kinds of essays.

My first thought when I read this was “IBM’s Watson cleaned Ken Jennings’ clock on Jeopardy! Don’t tell me computers can’t distinguish fact from fiction.” But then I was put in my place:

Brown University computer scientist Eugene Charniak, an expert in artificial intelligence, says it could take another century for computer software to accurately score an essay written in response to a prompt like this one, because it is so difficult for computers to assess whether a piece of writing demonstrates real knowledge across a subject as broad as American history.

Oh man. I don’t have anything like Mitt Romney’s wealth, and I know Charniak’s the expert, but I’m still willing to bet him $10,000 that a computer will be as good as a human at scoring fact-based high school essays by — oh, let’s say 2022 just to make it sporting. I figure there’s at least a chance I could lose that bet. 2032 would be a no-brainer. Later in the piece, after noting that new techniques have produced quantum leaps in language processing before, Dana weighs in on this:

A paper by ETS’s Derrick Higgins and Beata Beigman Klebanov points to a potential path forward: using Web databases of human knowledge, like online encyclopedias and news repositories, to check how factual and intellectually sophisticated an essay truly is.

….[One] program, called ReVerb, can recognize about one-third of the “facts” writers present on such topics, such as the century in which Chaucer lived (the 14th) and Einstein’s most famous scientific contribution (the Theory of Relativity)….Currently, however, computers struggle with determining how trustworthy various Web sources are, and they can’t weigh or synthesize competing claims from good sources.

Yeah, well, a lot of humans have this problem too, and I’ll bet H. siliconis overcomes it way before H. sapiens does. We haven’t made a helluva lot of progress on this front over the past few thousand years.

Anyway, you’re all probably tired of hearing me harp about this. Still, I’ll put my money on the computers. They’re getting better a lot faster than most of us think.

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate