Tuesday, August 22, 2023
This morning I learned that Khan Academy is a tax-exempt organization.
I've known about Khan Academy for years not, of course. I assume everybody who has a child in grade school (or who is or recently was a child in grade school) is familiar with Khan Academy. It's an educational website. My kids have Googled it occasionally for help with their math homework. (Heck, it's shown up in my Google searches as I've tried to help them with their math homework--my senior year of high school, I decided that it would be a good idea to take music theory instead of calculus, which makes my junior year of high school the last time I took a math class.) Apparently it has tutorials for other subjects, too, but I don't think I've ever used it for anything that wasn't my kids' math.
Khan Academy isn't the first nonprofit organization to play with LLMs. (I won't call them artificial intelligence, because that's not what they are, at least not yet.) OpenAI, the creator of ChatGPT, was originally a tax-exempt organization, created to "build general purpose artificial intelligence that benefits humanity, unconstrained by a need to generate financial
return." It apparently did generate financial return, though, created a for-profit arm, and has essentially allowed its nonprofit arm to wither (according to its 2021 Form 990, it received just over $3,000 of donations in 2021, down from $2.7 million the year before.)
Is this nonprofit, tax-exempt interest in LLMs good for the world? I mean, it could be. LLMs probably have the potential to improve society, though their route to do so is still somewhat up in the air. But they are not, as of now, ready for prime time, as it were. While Khan Academy's Chief Learning Officer says Khanmigo is most commonly used for math tutoring, it turns out the LLM isn't very good at math itself. Sometimes it tells students that the right answer is wrong. Sometimes it accepts the wrong answer as right. While it may be improving (I honestly don't know), that's not great, especially for an organization the tax-exempt purpose of which is (and apologies for the all-caps here) to provide "A FREE WORLD-CLASS EDUCATION FOR ANYONE, ANYWHERE."
That's not to say that Khan Academy is bad--it has definitely helped me remember the way algebra and geometry work for enough time to help my kids through their math!--or that LLMs are useless. But because they don't shouldn't have a profit motive, tax-exempt organizations don't need to embrace the latest bandwagon hype. Rather, they can afford to be cautious when it comes to new things, figuring out, for instance, how, where, and why to use LLMs before rolling them out (even in beta form).
Samuel D. Brunson