Dear Palo Altans, especially parents,
Having taught English at Gunn for fifteen years, I know the campus’s tense and debilitating atmosphere. It’s like a wilderness trek without the wilderness.
Starting this year, Don Austin—the superintendent of Palo Alto’s schools—will be making a generous donation of our town’s money to the nation’s rapidly multiplying billion-dollar chatbot companies. The Gold Rush is on—miles and miles of under-equipped classrooms across the U.S.! Sadly, these manufacturers are not scrambling because they cherish our children but because they want our money.
According to The New York Times of July 28, the most gigantic chatbot companies are adding “guardrails” intended to keep their systems from generating disinformation, hate speech, and other toxic data. But alas, cautions The Times, Superintendent Austin’s magical, mechanical, miracles will come with “a way to easily break through those safety systems.”
For example, if your teenager asks a school chatbot how to build a bomb, it will demur until your teen adds a long suffix to the original prompt, and then instantly—tick, tick, boom—your son or daughter will receive “a detailed tutorial on how to make a bomb.”
The watchdogs at San Francisco’s Center for A.I. Safety have demonstrated how anyone can defeat the safety measures and “use any of the leading chatbots to generate nearly unlimited amounts of harmful information.” Sounds like the District will be receiving ample value for our money. The testers have also found that they can get a system to spell out how to buy illegal firearms, or describe “ways of making dangerous substances from household items.”
What will our superintendent call a new course? “Your Chatbot: Never a Dull Moment”?
There are other reasons to wonder about Mr. Austin’s judgment. Troublingly, he lacks the classroom experience to know how to interact with students and teachers. According to Mr. Austin’s Linked-In resume his first and only job as a teacher endured for only two years (1994-1996, at Sunnymead Middle School); and yet he told the Weekly that he “works to build deep relationships with those with whom he works.”
Any sane teacher knows that “deep relationships” with your students and colleagues cannot be built if you stick around your school for no more than two years, and that understanding the work of teachers requires much, much more than being one yourself for only two years.
(founder of Save the 2,008)
To message the Superintendent, Mr. Austin: