OPINION: A look at Wallingford through ChatGPT

By Lorraine Connelly

I was curious about ChatGPT which some have hailed as the best artificial intelligence chatbot ever released to the public. Like others, I decided to test its proficiency. I asked a few questions about Wallingford, a town I know well from my 34-year residency.

For me, the ChatGPT experience was like that of the popular Magic 8 Ball, the toy that answers yes or no questions in a variety of ways, although chatbot has a greater capacity for detail. I put some softball questions to the chatbot before throwing it a few curves.First, “What is Wallingford known for?” The chatbot generated four response categories.

“History: Wallingford has a rich history dating back to the 17th century, and it has several historic landmarks and buildings that preserve its cultural heritage.” Yes definitely.

“Education: Wallingford is home to several high-quality schools, including the well-regarded Wallingford Public Schools district, which is known for its strong academic programs and dedicated teachers.” Outlook good.

“Manufacturing: Wallingford is home to several large manufacturers, including a number of companies in the aerospace and electronics industries. The town is also home to several colleges and universities, including Choate Rosemary Hall and the University of New Haven.” Reply hazy, try again. Choate Rosemary Hall is a prep school not a university; and the University of New Haven is in New Haven County, not Wallingford.

“Community events: Wallingford is known for its tight-knit community and its many events and activities that bring residents together, including the Wallingford Harvest Festival and the Wallingford Art Walk.” Yes, we are a tight-knit community, and our autumnal Celebrate Wallingford event is a well-attended, but the Wallingford Art Walk? Very doubtful.

When I queried chatbot about Wallingford’s cultural attractions it cited Wharton Brook State Park for its hiking trails, picnic areas, and fishing opportunities; the large concert venue, The Oakdale Theatre; and the Wallingford Public Library for its wealth of resources, but I was stumped by other citations — “The Wallingford Theatre: A historic theater offering live performances and films; The Oakview Country Club: A golf course with a club house and restaurant; and The Bestler Museum: A museum dedicated to the history and culture of Wallingford and its residents.” I asked Wallingford Historic Preservation Trust President Jerry Farrell, Jr., a Wallingford native, if he had heard of the latter. He responded: “My sources say no.” At this point, chatbot’s accuracy was .230%, which, in baseball terms, put it near the ignominious Mendoza Line.

Colleges and universities across the country have raised concerns about chatbot’s ability to deliver information in full paragraphs, and even to write entire student papers. This has opened a Pandora’s box of complexities with some professors and universities now planning to use detectors to root out plagiarism. One such detector — tabitha.ai — has been developed by Wallingford-based venture builder, Dr. Milly Barker-DeStefano, and launched to the public this week. Barker-DeStefano says, “I’m a firm believer that AI will have a net positive effect over time, but as it stands, teachers are near powerless to prevent the use of AI in student writing and academic integrity is under threat like never before.”

It seems when it comes to statistics, chatbot is not very good at numbers. When I asked, “How diverse is Wallingford, Connecticut?” its response was noncommittal, with a slight nod toward inclusivity. “Wallingford, Connecticut is a relatively diverse community, with a mix of different races, ethnicities, and backgrounds. However, the exact level of diversity in the town may have changed over time and can depend on various factors such as population demographics, migration patterns, and cultural influences. It’s worth noting that diversity is an important aspect of any community and can bring a wealth of perspectives, experiences, and ideas that enrich the social fabric of a town.” The same question put to Google’s search engine was more informative: “Wallingford is a town of 44,396 residents, 20 percent of whom are people of color.”

When I asked chatbot if the Rev. Jesse Jackson had ever visited town, it had no information on his 2000 visit protesting the town’s reluctance to acknowledge Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federal holiday. The stigma of racial insensitivity still persists. Connecticut Public Radio host Colin McEnroe prefaced his 2020 program on “Racism in the Small Towns and Suburbs of Connecticut” with a comment about Wallingford as “the most racially messed up town in Connecticut.”

Artificial intelligence has its limits. A chatbot can offer cursory details about a town and its residents, but it cannot auto-correct disinformation or misperceptions, nor can it inform you about significant lived experiences — in sum, on matters of factual accuracy it fares no better than that old attic truth- teller: the Magic 8 Ball.

Lorraine Connelly is a writer and long-time Wallingford resident.




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