As you may have picked up from my recents posts, AI is for me one of the most exciting and thought-provoking areas of human advancement. I genuinely think it will be as transformational to our everyday lives and our professional lives as the internet itself has been. It will improve our efficiency and effectiveness across a range of professions. It may even replace some. It will improve our use of spare time, freeing us up to spend more time with friends and family, or just engage in our hobbies. It also has the potential to make a huge impact on education, both formal and informal.
One of the ways I try to ensure I retain what I’ve read is to make notes as I go along. The use of AI has sped this process up for me no end. Generally these notes will now focus on how I can make specific use of what I’m learning, rather than a broader overview of the book's content. Currently I’m working through Thaler and Sunstein’s “Nudge”. I know that I can focus on the implications of any concepts for my workplace and think about how I will apply them; I can rely on AI to summarise the general content of the book for me. Grammarly is an example of how AI can be used to proofread and edit the first draft of a document; as programmes such as Microsoft Copilot and others come online we will see better and better proofing and editing implements in use.
Like any tool, it is only as powerful as how we choose to use it. If your goal is to write an essay or blog post on any given subject, AI can probably do that already for you. But to what end? If your goal is to learn, retain and (crucially) apply useful information, I would query the use of AI for this. Having AI summarise a book is not the same as reading that book for yourself. Sure, I could use Chat GPT to summarise every book relevant to whatever field I’m interested in. But can AI pick out the nuances of each book; can it think for me about how to apply what can be learnt to my life and career? No - at least, not yet. Despite this, the summary does fulfil another function. If I am about to read a book on a subject about which I know very little (if anything), then the summary acts as a useful precis. This then provides me with a scaffolding that can support my learning and understanding.
Our culture of education in Britain tends to focus more on learning facts by rote than understanding how to apply the concepts. Just think of the hours spent learning times tables rather than the application of multiplication in real life. Learning does not exist in a vacuum. Similarly, it’s very well ‘reading’ dozens of books by asking for summaries that you can digest quickly. But what you risk missing out on is the opportunity to pick up on those elements the AI missed, to reflect on how the learning applies directly and specifically to you. Our brains do not encode the important information if we are handed summaries of the information and fail to actively engage with it. Such shortcuts may indeed help your learning; but they are no substitute for understanding.
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