A.I. and the Future of Cheating

What happens when universities can’t tell whether an essay is written by a human or an algorithm?

Matt Bartlett
Published in
6 min readSep 13, 2019


Photo: Caiaimage/Sam Edwards/Getty Images

NoNo matter whether you were a straight-A student at university or more a student of beer pong, it’s extremely unlikely that your positive memories of college took place in an examination hall. Beyond being generally miserable, exams exacerbate anxiety and other mental health issues, and do a poor job of assessing skills like critical thinking and creativity. Time-pressured tests are used as the key filter for several prestigious professions and universities and, some argue, for no apparent good reason.

Given this sad state of affairs, it should be positive to see supervised exams and tests fall slowly out of vogue. Headmasters and professors have urged that more flexible, less time-pressured assessments like essays and written assignments should replace exams. Singapore, the world leader of exam-based education, has abolished exam rankings (albeit only for primary grades). At the same time, online education has surged, with enrollment in online courses quadrupling over the last 15 years.

Unfortunately, this trend towards online and written assessments has an adversary: artificial intelligence. We’re not far from a future where students will have access to sophisticated A.I. tools with the ability to “write” high-quality essays or assignments on their behalf.

Earlier this year, OpenAI (an A.I. research company founded by Elon Musk and Sam Altman) warned about the danger of its new algorithm for text generation, called GPT-2. At that time, OpenAI was not particularly comfortable with how advanced GPT-2’s capabilities were in generating sophisticated text in response to commands. OpenAI trained GPT-2 on 8 million web pages that had been curated by users of Reddit (the poor A.I.).

If a university has no way of determining whether an assignment was written by a human or an algorithm, existing grading systems lose any semblance of meritocracy or fairness.

Of course, most students don’t want to cheat their way through university. But cheating is becoming more common. A study of top U.K. universities found 3,721 cases of academic misconduct in 2016–2017, up 40% from the previous study two…