The art and function of words in the age of AI

Paint. Think about painting for a moment. I am going to predict what you thought about because I have been asking this question to a lot of people for the past six months or so.

Roughly four out of every five people I ask to describe what they think about will refer to some form of artwork. Perhaps you thought of a well-known portrait, or perhaps you pictured an artist at an easel. Roughly one in five, however, will give a surprising response and say, “dining room” or “kitchen.”

Exploring the dual nature of words as both functional tools and artistic expressions, I want to explore the transformative impact of generative pre-trained transformers—better known as GPT—on our understanding and teaching of writing.

As a tool, paint serves two different functions in a broad sense. Paint has a functional purpose and an artistic one. It’s functional purpose is to paint a house, a door, a wall, or in some instances, nails. It serves a function.

Paint can also serve a deeper and more artistic purpose. It can capture an image we can only see in our mind’s eye and offer it up for others. Artistic paint is also interpretive and, at some level, unknowable (complex). The intention of the artist and the reception by the viewer are not always the same.

Most of us don’t think much about this distinction on a regular basis, but with the rapid deployment of AI generative tools, the debate is heating up.

How we teach students to write

My brother shared a story about wanting some background music to play as he was deeply engaged in some intellectual study. When he queried the song, he realized he was listening to AI-generated music. Was this music art?

While there may be some who would say yes, I think a larger group might think the sound was merely functional. Function, in this sense, is to perform a task. The task my brother needed was music that was not too stimulating and that would allow him to focus.

This brings us to words. The great debate in many middle school and high school English teacher circles is about the impact of GPT on how we think about and teach students to write. I believe the answer is in front of us when we think about purpose.

Most of us write a lot for our jobs. Perhaps it is a summary report from a call. Maybe it is a lot of emails. When I consider much of the writing I regularly engage in as CEO of a school district, I would describe my writing as functional. I simply need to communicate information (sharing, responding, summarizing or synthesizing).

But this is not the full extent of my writing. Every week, I write an editorial for our local newspaper. I regularly contribute articles to state and national journals. I have written a book and have a second one set to be released in February.

I consider these to be art. I think long and hard about the arc of the story and sometimes obsessively think about the words I want to use. Do I consider myself a great writer? No. But I do believe this body of work is my version of art as it relates to words.

Humans are the great creators

There is much debate about where GPT might fit into our working lives and how we should teach this to students moving forward. The first step is with the conceptual understanding that words and writing serve a purpose.

Students, and people in general, need to understand that some writing is functional in nature, and it really doesn’t matter who writes what as long as the purpose is served. Students need to be able to write functionally to be successful adults, but this task is going to become less and less important in the coming generations.

Just this week, I was introduced to a tool that listened in on a Zoom call and, at the conclusion of the meeting, summarized the meeting, assigned tasks and provided a follow-up list of items. That was a perfectly functional use of language, and I don’t care who (or what) provided the summary. The number and nature of these tools will continue to expand.

I fully expect we will always appreciate human-generated art in the form of language. The idiosyncrasies of our writing styles, our unique and flawed way of thinking and the beauty of human thought in general will maintain a place of prominence in our minds.
Whether it is music, or paint or words, humans stand on the forefront of creating something new.

If we trained a paint AI tool on all the artwork that had ever been developed prior to 1860 and then asked it to create an impressionist painting in the style of Claude Monet, it couldn’t complete the task. This style didn’t exist prior to Monet and other French impressionists. If we trained GPT on all writing except Ernest Hemingway and then asked it to write in his style, would it exist?

The future of human creativity

Humans are the great creators. We will be challenged more and more in the coming years to remember this, to teach this, and to inspire this in others.

The rapid advancements in AI, exemplified by GPT, are challenging our traditional notions of functional and artistic writing. Whether it’s paint, sound or words, the dual nature of these mediums serves as a lens through which we can better understand the evolving landscape of human and machine-generated content.

As we move forward, it’s crucial to remember that humans are the pioneers of new artistic forms and expressions. We must continue to teach and inspire this creative ability in future generations. But as AI tools become increasingly sophisticated, the question we must grapple with is: Will we reach a point where the line between functional and artistic writing blurs, and if so, what does that mean for the future of human creativity?

Quintin Shepherd
Quintin Shepherd
Dr. Quintin “Q” Shepherd is a seasoned public-school superintendent with 18 years of experience serving in three states. He began his career in education as a school custodian, became a PreK-12 music teacher, and served as an elementary principal before serving as a high school principal. Q has made significant contributions to the education sector and is recognized for his exceptional leadership skills. In addition to his professional achievements, Q is also an Adjunct Faculty at the University of Houston- Victoria, imparting his knowledge and expertise to the next generation of educational leaders. He is the author of the highly acclaimed and best-selling book "The Secret to Transformational Leadership", which has been widely celebrated for its insights into effective leadership and is considered a must-read for anyone seeking to make a difference in the world of education.