The AI Detection Arms Race Is On—and College Students Are Building the Weapons

The siren call of AI says, It doesn’t have to be this way. And when you consider the billions of people who sit outside the elite club of writer-sufferers, you start to think: Maybe it shouldn’t be this way.

May Habib spent her early childhood in Lebanon before moving to Canada, where she learned English as a second language. “I thought it was pretty unfair that so much benefit would accrue to someone really good at reading and writing,” she says. In 2020, she founded Writer, one of several hybrid platforms that aims not to replace human writing, but to help people—and, more accurately, brands—collaborate better with AI.

Habib says she believes there’s value in the blank page stare-down. It helps you consider and discard ideas and forces you to organize your thoughts. “There are so many benefits to going through the meandering, head-busting, wanna-kill-yourself staring at your cursor,” she says. “But that has to be weighed against the speed of milliseconds.”

The purpose of Writer isn’t to write for you, she says, but rather to make your writing faster, stronger, and more consistent. That could mean suggesting edits to prose and structure, or highlighting what else has been written on the subject and offering counterarguments. The goal, she says, is to help users focus less on sentence-level mechanics and more on the ideas they’re trying to communicate. Ideally, this process yields a piece of text that’s just as “human” as if the person had written it entirely themselves. “If the detector can flag it as AI writing, then you’ve used the tools wrong,” she says.

The black-and-white notion that writing is either human- or AI-generated is already slipping away, says Ethan Mollick, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Instead, we’re entering an era of what he calls “centaur writing.” Sure, asking ChatGPT to spit out an essay about the history of the Mongol Empire produces predictably “AI-ish” results, he says. But “start writing, ‘The details in paragraph three aren’t quite right—add this information, and make the tone more like The New Yorker,’” he says. “Then it becomes more of a hybrid work and much better-quality writing.”

Mollick, who teaches entrepreneurship at Wharton, not only allows his students to use AI tools—he requires it. “Now my syllabus says you have to do at least one impossible thing,” he says. If a student can’t code, maybe they write a working program. If they’ve never done design work, they might put together a visual prototype. “Every paper you turn in has to be critiqued by at least four famous entrepreneurs you simulate,” he says.

Students still have to master their subject area to get good results, according to Mollick. The goal is to get them thinking critically and creatively: “I don’t care what tool they’re using to do it, as long as they’re using the tools in a sophisticated manner and using their mind.”

Mollick acknowledges that ChatGPT isn’t as good as the best human writers. But it can give everyone else a leg up. “If you were a bottom-quartile writer, you’re in the 60th to 70th percentile now,” he says. It also frees certain types of thinkers from the tyranny of the writing process. “We equate writing ability with intelligence, but that’s not always true,” he says. “In fact, I’d say it’s often not true.”