Originality and passion, rely on your human traits to outperform AI
The first Chinese Writing Contest was launched in 2021. It was started as a response to an ongoing prevalent belief among Chinese language learners, teachers and test authorities.
At the time, I did not anticipate the rise of ChatGPT. All of a sudden, this amazing and fascinating AI powered chat bot gives a new meaning and mission to why this Chinese Writing Contest must carry on.
For a very long time, it has been taken for granted that there is a positive causality between the number of Chinese characters a student has learned and the Chinese reading and writing skills this student has achieved.
It is as if learning more Chinese characters automatically improves students’ reading and writing skills.
Hence the question that is often asked among students is “How many characters have you learned?” Frequently also implicitly, what it’s really saying is, if you have not leaned at least 1000 Chinese characters, you are nothing.
This belief is re-enforced by HSK exams and other tests, which are commonly divided based on the number of Chinese characters taught. Lower level students learn fewer characters than higher level students. Correspondingly, lower level students are not expected to be any good.
Take HSK level 2 for example. 300 Chinese characters are prescribed for this level. Instead of asking students to write a story using these characters, exam questions are just a bunch of disjointed words and sentences, and pinyin is included.
In other words, the test authorities does not have high expectations for lower level students. Since they themselves can not do much with these 300 characters, they expect students can’t either. Fragmented knowledge is all that is asked for.
It’s a shame. The power of 300 Chinese characters is greatly underestimated. They can form coherent and interesting texts, which can be used as a foundation for solid reading and writing skills. Understanding the capacity of Chinese characters can make even beginners’ Chinese impressive.
In order to show this side of Chinese characters, I launched this Chinese Writing Contest that only 320 Chinese characters are allowed to use.
Lo and behold, ChatGPT entered the scene and shocked the entire world at the end of 2022. Trained through Large Language Models (LLMs), it can understand and generate languages like humans.
That LLMs includes the Chinese language. ChatGPT can come up with tons of great sentences, original stories, poems and essays. Its speed of generating Chinese texts in a wide range of contexts dwarfs any humans on earth.
I did recognise the challenges posed by AI prior to the advent of ChatGPT. I highlighted machines vs humans in two separate conferences in 2022, and emphasised the importance of creativity in teaching and learning Chinese.
But compared to today, the concept of AI in language teaching was so vague at the time. Nobody mentioned anything about the existential crisis. It was all future possibilities.
It’s hard to believe that it was less than a year ago.
Today, the future has arrived. This existential crisis is so real for both teachers and students. Everyone is asking: Am I going to be replaced by AI? How can I outperform AI?
The answer is: we can outperform AI, but only in places where there are no precedents.
AI learns through Large Language Models. Its super power comes from countless texts on the internet and else where.
It is in this sense that this Chinese Writing Contest offers an arena for humans to outperform AI.
This Chinese Writing Contest is created based on a small language model. There are no vast amount of available texts. There are no fixed formulas. There are no designated topics. And there will never be.
What this challenge needs is originality and passion, which are human traits.
This is where we distinguish ourselves from AI. We’re humans.
I have been a fan of The Terminator movies since day one, and soon a fan of The Matrix movies.
These movies used to be purely entertaining science fictions. But today they are more like prophecies that the war between humans and machines is inevitable.
And if we want to win that war, we must excel in areas that machines can not, i.e. be human.
As this Chinese Writing Contest is running for the third year, I hope it can be one of the many tools that will help train humans to have an upper hand at a critical moment in the future.