The AI threat: keep calm and carry on

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Three weekends ago, I delivered a keynote here:

New Directions in Chinese Language Education in the 21st Century

The Eighth International Conference on Teaching Chinese as a Second Language

Swarthmore College, June 9-10, 2023



    AI — Artificial Intelligence

    DT — Digital Technology

    IT — Information Technology

    DH — Digital Humanities

    AGI — Artificial General Intelligence, where machines supposedly can accomplish any intellectual task that a human can (to me that's a pipe dream)

(given for present and future reference and use)

Title "Aspects of AI and digital technologies in Chinese language teaching"


In recent decades, language processing hardware and software have progressed at an astonishing rate, one that is geometric rather than arithmetic.  The opportunities these advances offer and the challenges they pose require our thoughtful attention and careful response, lest the machines get out of control and affect our students in detrimental ways.  DeepL, ChatGPT, and other constantly evolving technologies possess enormous power to manipulate language, power that we can utilize for the enhancement of Chinese language pedagogy.  On the other hand, we must monitor and adapt this potential in such a manner that it fits our purposes and meets the needs of our students. 

Even though we have already entered the age of AI, we still need to make use of digital tools and conventional paper based resources.  Students cannot always be expected to have access to advanced electronic devices, but must also be familiar with traditional printed materials.  For example, if only for the sake of thoroughly understanding how characters are composed, constituted, and classified, they cannot rely solely upon passive recognition of the script as it appears on a computer or phone screen.

Essentially, machines are now fully capable of undertaking many of the tasks that students are expected to master for themselves, such as writing essays.  However, it is of little help to a student if he / she has ChatGPT write an essay assigned by the teacher, because it is in the thinking through and creating sentences and paragraphs him/herself that his / her command of the language progresses and he / she achieves the requisite mastery to independently write his / her own texts.

Consequently, for such risks as those just mentioned, teachers should be alert to the possibility that students are placing undue emphasis on assistance from AI and digital technologies in their daily assignments and be armed with software that helps them spot work that, though acceptable, is unlikely to have been done by the student him/herself.

On the other hand, when used intelligently and responsibly AI software and digital hardware can make the teaching / learning process more efficient and effective.  The purpose of this lecture is to offer suggestions to teachers of Chinese as a second language for how to strike a desirable balance between the drawbacks and the advantages of AI and digital technologies.                      

That was written well before the conference.  In the days leading up to the delivery of my keynote, I kept hearing increasingly alarming news about how AI was taking over, including on the very morning I went from my home to the auditorium where we were meeting, when on the radio came a report that the graduation of many students at colleges and universities across the country was being held up because teachers and professors were accusing them of having used AI to write their papers.

PANIC was setting in.

I could see it in the eyes of the Chinese language teachers assembled before me.  It was as though they were saying:  "Zěnme bàn 怎麼辦?" ("What to do?").

What useful advice could I give them to cope with the crisis occasioned by the advent of AI?

Extemporaneously (it certainly wasn't in my ppt), here's the gist of how I concluded my address.

Steady as you go

As an atmosphere of xiēsīdǐlǐ 歇斯底里 ("hysteria") descends upon us and we go scrambling for anti-AI detection software, I wonder how best to advise you in coping with the reality of ChatGPT and other technologies for composition and translation.  The first thing I want to say is "Keep Calm".

My wife, Li-ching Chang, who used to teach Mandarin at Swarthmore College, loved to watch the Boston Celtics play basketball during the days of Larry Bird, Danny Ainge, Dennis Johnson, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale.  In the waning minutes of close games, when tension was palpable and the teams were frantically running up and down the court, she would call out to the TV:  "Wěnzhe! Wěnzhe! 穩著! 穩著!" ("steady / stable / calm / hold on!").  As history tells us, the Celtics usually won, often through the heroics of Larry Bird.  Whether Li-ching's exhortations helped them or not, her sentiments were sage counsel for anyone who is facing difficult trials and rapid, unpredictable change.

Contemplating wěn 穩 (simplified 稳), a character so difficult to write that doing so induces anxiety for many who attempt it without the aid of DT, that led to further reflection on the dynamics of the interplay between crisis and calm.

It is curious that the opposite of wěn 穩 ("calm") is jí 急 ("urgency"), where the latter is incorporated in the former, without yet serving as its phonophore.  It's kind of a yin-yang situation where one's nerves / emotions bounce back and forth between the two poles of the dyad without ever reaching a steady state.  Yet things work out and the dance of qián 乾 ("heaven") and kūn 坤 ("earth"), to borrow the title of a forthcoming book of essays on the Yìjīng 易經 (Classic of Changes) by my brother Denis and me, continues.

My take for today:  do not fear AI; make it your ally — or your servant.

Bottom line:  AI is far from infallible.  Sometimes it makes gross mistakes.  For instance, a couple of weeks ago, I encountered a text where from context shāng 商 should have been interpreted as the name of the first attested dynasty (c. 1600 BC-c. 1045 BC) in the East Asian Heartland (EAH) but Google Translate, Baidu Fanyi, Microsoft Bing, and DeepL all rendered it as "merchants".


Selected readings



  1. Taylor, Philip said,

    June 29, 2023 @ 2:02 pm

    « My wife, Li-ching Chang […] loved to watch the Boston Celtics play basketball […]. In the waning minutes of close games, […], she would call out to the TV: "Wěnzhe! Wěnzhe! 穩著! 穩著!" »

    On first reading this, I had a vision of her calling out "穩著! 穩著!" to the television camera (man) — it was only on a second reading that I came to realise that she did not love to watch the games live, but rather through the medium of television …

  2. Laura Morland said,

    June 29, 2023 @ 4:49 pm

    @ Taylor, Philip –

    That's because you're English, and therefore have no idea how expensive tickets are to games. Humble professors could not be in the habit of attending games in person, at least, not in a major market like Boston.

    (My husband shouts encouragement to the TV all the time, for multiple sports.)

    @ VHM, Thank you for sharing your remarks. Did members of your audience report feeling reassured?

  3. Victor Mair said,

    June 29, 2023 @ 8:03 pm

    @Laura Morland

    My talk was well received. People are still thanking me for it.

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