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As it Happened: Harvard Commencement 2023

Op Eds

What Kind of Intelligence?

By Sophia Salamanca
By Mary L. DiSalvo, Contributing Opinion Writer
Mary L. DiSalvo is the director of Harvard’s Language Center and a former Italian instructor at Harvard College.

As a former Harvard College instructor and in my current role at the Harvard Language Center, I try to stay abreast of essential innovations in artificial intelligence — for instance, the current marvelous ease of cheating.

I therefore asked ChatGPT for a circumscribed assist with this piece: 50 words of advice for the class of 2023. It obligingly gushed, “Congratulations, Class of 2023! As you enter the next phase of your lives, remember to stay curious, never stop learning, and seek opportunities to make a positive impact in the world. Be resilient in the face of challenges, stay true to your values, and always prioritize your well-being. Best of luck!”

This valediction is about as innovative as the printing press, but I suppose the algorithm is designed to avoid provocation, unlike a cranky middle-aged Harvard administrator. Though I don’t disagree with the sentiment, I do want to push it further: Class of 2023, in this world of proliferating technological wonders, remember that your true potential lies in what makes you human.

I’ve gotten a handful of emails over the last year of the “Your students should use AI to learn languages!” variety. These app creators are laudable in their enthusiasm for their products, as well as laughable in their one-size-fits-all approach to college-level language instruction and their confidence that an academic institution would be eager to do away with flesh and blood instructors.

Given my background in teaching and my championing of the Harvard Language Exchange program, it follows that I will never completely cede language learning to the machine. But AI is here to stay, and it will only get more sophisticated. Despite all the panic about it coming for our jobs or sparking the Skynet apocalypse, we’ll have to approach it pragmatically.

In an ideal world, we will integrate it into our academic lives as a tool as we reexamine what “human” skills are critical for students to acquire within the liberal arts curriculum. The wonderful opportunities that natural language processing and other forms of AI have presented us can, and should, only ever be augmentative, lest we lose our thirst for cultural exchange: the delight of discussing what makes a great fish curry with a new Bengali friend, explaining the subtleties of Rickrolling to the visiting German student, the first time you use the subjunctive spontaneously, or when you tell your French friend just what you think of Balenciaga’s puffer jackets.

Within the Harvard student body, more than 150 countries are represented. What would our institution be if we replaced more than 8,000 students and scholars with chatbot-powered avatars?

I certainly don’t need to preach to the Class of 2023 the effects of losing our sense of community, given the cascades of existential crises of the last several years that have caused, and were caused by, our collective and individual isolation. And it doesn’t help that, when faced with these crises, the impulse of the educated is to burrow deeper into our respective dens, insulating ourselves from contrary opinions and doomscrolling our way through hopelessness.

The machine expects nothing of us but our passive presence, and eventually will give up on even that (yes, even Duolingo will abandon its “Ready to practice your Portuguese? Keep Duo happy!” nudges).

Humans are harder. Harder, messy, prone to misunderstanding, and irritating in their demands for both accountability and simultaneous adjustment of our own expectations. And yet, how much is lost in a Google translation, and only understood through serious study or real-world interaction? Your horizon stretches a little more when you realize, for example, the extent to which your views about a particular culture boil down to stereotypes, or why that Neapolitan waiter wouldn’t bring you a cappuccino after dinner.

The sleek beauty of tech is that it doesn’t call for empathy or negotiation. It’s obsolete within months and doesn’t complain when you toss it in the trash. Each human conflict or connection, however, strains the bounds of your world, fires new synapses, and reaffirms your uniqueness. Each worthwhile human relationship requires renewal.

As you go forth from the protected space of Harvard, into a world grappling with political division, climate change, economic anxiety, and social inequality, don’t be afraid of tech — use it in all the ways that enhance our current imperfect realities. But don’t forget the immense power of human collaboration in the face of staggering obstacles.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask for a final word from our friendly chatbot. ChatGPT, what is the value of human collaboration?

“Human collaboration combines diverse skills, knowledge, and perspectives to achieve common goals and create greater impact than individuals can achieve alone.”

Good bot.

Mary L. DiSalvo is the director of Harvard’s Language Center and a former Italian instructor at Harvard College

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Op EdsCommencement 2023