Apr 7, 2023 - Technology
Column / Signal Boost

Sal Khan explains why GPT-4 is ready to be a tutor


Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Dai Sugano/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

For all the high-profile examples of ChatGPT getting facts and even basic math wrong, Khan Academy founder Sal Khan says the latest version of the generative AI engine makes a pretty good tutor.

  • "This technology is very powerful," Khan told Axios in a recent interview. "It's getting better."

Driving the news: Khan Academy was among the early users of GPT-4 that OpenAI touted when it released the updated engine.

  • This week, two more school districts (Newark, N.J. and Hobart, Indiana) are joining the pilot of Khanmigo, the AI-assisted tutor.
  • With the two new districts, a total of 425 teachers and students are testing Khanmigo.

How it works: The chatbot works much like a real-life or online tutor, looking at students' work and helping them when they get stuck.

  • In a math problem, for example, Khanmigo can detect not just whether a student got an answer right or wrong, but also where they may have gone astray in their reasoning.

The big picture: ChatGPT and its brethren have been highly controversial — especially in education, where some schools are banning the use of the technology.

  • Concerns range from the engines' propensity to be confidently wrong (or "hallucinate") to worries about students using the systems to write their papers.

Between the lines: Khan said he understands these fears, but also notes that many of those criticizing the technology are also using it themselves and even letting their kids make use of it.

  • And, for all its flaws, he says today's AI offers the opportunity for more kids — in both rich and developing countries — to get personalized learning.
  • "The time you need tutoring is right when you are doing the work, often when you are in class," Khan said.

Of note: Khan stresses that Khanmigo didn't just take GPT-4 out of the box — it also added its own "secret sauce" to help avoid math errors. "I'd be surprised if anyone has worked harder on this than we have," Khan said.

  • Another popular feature allows students from elementary school to high school to take either side of an issue and debate with the AI tutor.
  • AI engines can also help teachers, Khan said, pointing them to which students seem to be getting a concept and which need additional help.

Yes, but: Khan acknowledges that Khanmigo, like the students it is helping tutor, still has a lot to learn. That, he said, is why it is being made available only to a smaller group of teachers and students as part of the organization's Khan Labs unit.

  • "People who are opting in will hopefully know this is not a perfect experience," he said, adding, "It’s getting good quite fast."
  • With earlier versions, including GPT 3.5, Khan said the engine could help answer many math questions but couldn't help break down a math problem into steps the way GPT-4 can — and the way a tutor needs to.

What's next: Khan said he would love to see the program cover current events and be able to work on problems that require a diagram or a graph, but those aren't yet supported.

Go deeper: Khan gives a 20-minute overview of how the AI tutor works in this YouTube video.

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