I’ve always been a big supporter of bursaries to ‘English’ (understood as a transitive verb) the dissertations of students for whom English is a second language. These students often have interesting things to say and deserve to have their ideas taken seriously. So, the cost of grammatical editing is worth the benefit of the ideas that can be thereby expressed. But why limit this policy to language differences? After all, academics even speaking their native languages may need some help to make what they are trying to say worth saying.
The next step is to develop machines/programmes that can deliver papers more effectively than their human authors, especially when the authors also tend to restrict the scope of the Q&A to just what was explicitly said in the paper – and not because of a lack of fluency in the language of presentation. Why should academic conferences routinely tolerate human authors who lip sync their papers and respond to questions in the form or repetition or mild elaboration of what they had just said? A computer should be able to do that sort of thing – including Powerpoints — more efficiently without the need for a flesh-and-blood human presence. As long as the human gets credit for what the machine says, there is hardly cause for objection. Moreover, it would diminish the academic’s carbon footprint! To make the conference experience more visually exciting, a hologram of the author could be projected at the moment of presentation. Imagine a large international conference of academics that hosts concurrent sessions of speakers in the style of a Cineplex!
(But you might ask at this point who will physically attend such conferences in which most of the speakers are represented by holograms….)
But if we’re willing to go this far, then we should take seriously what I call the Google Test – by analogy with the Turing Test. Can an academic audience distinguish between a human presenter and a holographically enhanced machine presenter that is programmed to access a search engine capable of anticipating and responding engagingly to a wide range of questions related to an academic paper? To be sure, the devil is in the details of what ‘engagingly’ means. But someone who developed a form of AI that passes the Google Test for a swathe of academic researchers would effectively issue a wake-up call to academics to redefine their sense of a vocation in a world where every other form of labour is gradually – sometimes not so gradually – being replaced by intelligent machines.