Through the historical mirror

When I sit down to begin research for a Gleanings column, my process often gravitates toward current events and a connection to the past.

For this month’s outing, I began considering the increasing coverage of artificial intelligence (AI) following the surge in popularity of OpenAI’s ChatGPT, Microsoft’s “new” Bing, and Google’s Bard. What role, if any, did Niskayuna play in the development of AI, most likely through GE Global Research, and did it connect to the technology that ordinary users encounter today?

Although I would like to say that I found a wealth of information, the most important details were difficult to analyze. A subject for another day, perhaps more appropriate for one of my many fellow committee members associated with the research center.

But as I began my journey to understand our AI story, I delved into the technology itself to see if it could guide me. I’ve learned a few new things. I’ve also learned a few incorrect things or information that could not be verified from the available sources.

Instead, this month’s Gleanings serve more as a follow-up to our August post, which was all about collecting and sharing your own story. Through a series of similar prompts, I tried to figure out what I could learn about Niskayuna’s past from ChatGPT, Bing, and Bard.

The first thing I looked for was a general “Tell me about the story of Niskayuna.” All three providers offered a fairly similar answer with varying levels of detail. A town in Schenectady County, Mohawk settlements, ‘spreading corn flats’, the role of industry in 19th and 20th century development.

From there, I then asked each tool to explain the history of each century from the 17th to the present. Most used the Schenectady Massacre as the main event of the early period, so I asked the tools to focus solely on the Niskayuna activities after that. Despite such a limited public record, each drew on broader themes well into modern times.

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The amount of detail you get from each of the providers will certainly vary depending on the design you intend to make. ChatGPT was by far the most conclusive, probably drawing from a variety of original (and fabricated) sources. In one instance, it listed a handful of different mills that existed in town, some I was familiar with, some not. When I asked it to dig deeper, it provided a fully fabricated source, including authors, chapters, and page numbers. At the same time, it provided several key developments, places and people for each century and could provide information about each.

Bard could be verbose, but generally offered broad, far-reaching statements. Many of the answers given could have been given for any developing New England town with an agricultural, industrial, and suburban development. Schenectady’s story has often been resorted to as a crutch due to a lack of detail about Niskayuna himself. Bard also provided details outside of the stipulated period. Google notes that Bard has no connection to their search engine, so there were articles I had found easily in the past that had no record.

Finally, Bing, which is designed as a combination of ChatGPT and the Microsoft search engine, was the shortest and provided overall details. However, unlike its counterparts, Bing provided source links for all the information it distributed. Bing also offered a degree of “creativity” in communicating with the tool to increase or decrease depth and freedom to respond less accurately. Unsurprisingly for a search engine, at its most creative, Bing spits out a range of landmarks or tourist attractions in and around the city. By the time I got into modern times, it relied entirely on the historical chronology of the city’s website for all the information it contained.

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Overall it was an interesting experiment, but the use of these tools left a lot to be desired as a historical tool. Everyone had their strengths and weaknesses. If you use any of them or future competitors, you must consider their purpose and the data they are trained on. These large language models aren’t necessarily designed to spit out the right answer, just the best approximation of the data they’re familiar with.

Right now, anything you read would need to be verified using traditional online searches and library searches. But I encourage people to look around and see what they can learn.

Here’s a taste of the “story” I’ve collected on my digital journey.

The Dutch settled at the intersection of Balltown Road and Nott Street. (The settlements in early Niskayuna days were closer to the Mohawk River, like Lions Park today.) A Niskayuna individual was awarded the Medal of Honor in the Civil War and took part in the surrender at Appomattox. (The regiment included Niskayuna residents, but was based in Raleigh, not Appomattox, and there is no record of this individual or awards.) The Niskayuna School District was established “in the ’60s and ’70s.” (It was founded in 1953.) The city’s first female leader was Marylou Juwel — or was it Susan Phillips? – both 1993. (The first female supervisor was Mardy Moore in 1980.) Comcast CEO Brian Roberts is a notable local figure. (He’s from Philadelphia, although we can boast of the Stanfords.)

Ben Spear is a member of the Niskayuna Historical Committee.

Categories: News, Schenectady County, Your Niskayuna

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