Washington University launches its own version of ChatGPT

| Staff Writer

Illustration by Tuesday Hadden | Student Life

Washington University released its own secure version of ChatGPT for free use by all University students, faculty, and staff, Dec. 19, 2023. The project was a collaboration between the University Digital Intelligence and Innovation Accelerator (DI2) and WashU IT. 

Currently still in its beta phase, the University’s version of the AI chatbot is HIPAA and FERPA protected, meaning users are free to upload any sensitive information to it without fear of OpenAI, the creators of ChatGPT, harvesting that data.

Dr. Albert Lai, the deputy faculty lead for DI2 and a leader on the University ChatGPT project, revealed how the University acquired its own version of ChatGPT.

“We have an agreement with Microsoft,” Lai said. “We get a version that’s within a few months of where OpenAI is.”

While the University’s ChatGPT is very similar to OpenAI’s ChatGPT 3.5, the most advanced free version of ChatGPT, Lai explained that they differ in terms of security, particularly regarding research.

“Technically speaking, OpenAI can utilize anything that you put into [ChatGPT], and will essentially take ownership of that data,” Lai said. “That’s just not something that the university felt was okay to do, both from a patient privacy and intellectual property standpoint.”

 Lai also said that the project was an effort to provide equity to the University community. 

“We had some push from not only the research side, but also the educators in the institution who were saying that ‘we have some students who are paying for ChatGPT, we need to be able to level the playing field,’” Lai said. 

While the University’s free ChatGPT is less advanced than OpenAI’s ChatGPT 4, which requires payment, Dr. Lai was optimistic about the University’s ChatGPT updating to its level soon.

Though the project has seen 2,700 unique users in its single month of uptime, Dr. Sally Wu, the Assistant Director for Educational Technology at the Center for Teaching and Learning, said that AI is still being integrated into the classroom fairly slowly and with caution.

“I think [AI in the classroom] is really starting pretty small at this point, it doesn’t necessarily take advantage of what AI is capable of,” Wu said. “I think right now, on the teaching end, we’re just trying to understand how it might augment what we’re already doing in the classroom, rather than completely changing or transforming it.”

However, Wu is optimistic about future AI integration.

“I think in some ways, by creating our own WashU ChatGPT, this shows that we are also thinking about innovation,” Wu said. “AI is a component that we’re investing in as an institution and, combined with the fact that we’re investing so much in it on the research end, it’s something instructors should really think about.” 

Merely providing AI as a tool to students might not be the end of the University’s responsibilities should they wish for students to use AI effectively. Associate Professor at the Brown School and writer of “Supercharge Your Research Productivity with ChatGPT,” Dr. Ruopeng An, thinks more has to be done to educate people on how to use AI.

“I think the potential is really magnificent,” An said. “The world of knowledge is at your fingertips, but I would really encourage having faculty and students learn prompt engineering, because we need to ask good questions [to effectively use ChatGPT].”

An believes that a lack of resources for learning how to use AI effectively can hold students and faculty back from taking advantage of it.

“I would say education plays a major role,” An said. “Most students may not even know you can now customize ChatGPT as your personal tutor, and most faculty are probably not familiar with using ChatGPT API to assess data or to build simulation tools.”

To achieve this goal, An and his students, who work with AI “by the hour, if not by the minute,” are setting up live and recorded tutorials for effective AI use.

“I’m working with the Provost’s office and trying to provide two bi-weekly tutorials to disseminate AI for higher education,” An said. “[We’re] especially teaching people how to use ChatGPT and other AI tools to facilitate research, education, and self-learning.”

Dr. Sally Wu and the Center for Teaching and Learning are also working to further education about this emerging technology, with a February faculty workshop about AI in the classroom and the hiring of a new Assistant Director for Teaching Innovation to support generative AI teaching.

“We hope to be able to provide more programming, resources, and services to help instructors and students to use [ChatGPT/AI] better,” Wu said. 

While the University’s beta ChatGPT is perhaps not as powerful as AI enthusiasts like An would prefer, Lai, Wu, and An all shared an excitement for students’ ability to use AI responsibly to bring about the future.

“I would say to share and communicate what it is you’re doing,” Wu said, “I mean, this really is the future and we’re just at the beginning of it. We’re just exploring and I think there will be interesting things that come along and careers we can’t even imagine right now.”

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