The story of Reginald Lee

July 11th, 2023 by Tom Lynch

Let me ask you a question: What is the single most dangerous challenge facing America right now?

There are lots of possible answers, aren’t there? In no particular order, we face political and cultural hyper-partisanship, an ever-widening gap between the very rich and the very poor, the never-ending threat of Donald Trump and his MAGA-cult followers, the continuing decline in our human replacement rate, the accelerating rise in health care costs, the fate of Europe as the Ukraine/Russia war continues beyond 500 days… and the list goes on.

I’m sure we all have our various answers to the question of our most dangerous challenge. To get to mine, let me tell you the story of Reginald Lee.

In the early 20th century, Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, played an unexpected role in the aftermath of the tragic sinking of the RMS Titanic. While the connection may not be widely known, it highlights the far-reaching impact of this historic event.

One of the survivors of the Titanic disaster was a young man named Reginald Lee. Born in Worcester in 1891, Lee was a gifted student who excelled in academics. He had an insatiable curiosity and a deep interest in scientific research. It was this passion that led him to pursue a higher education at Clark University.

Lee arrived at Clark in 1910, where he studied physics and immersed himself in the scientific community. His time at the university proved instrumental in shaping his future and setting him on a path that would intersect with the Titanic tragedy.

During his studies at Clark, Lee became fascinated with wireless telegraphy, a burgeoning field of communication technology at the time. He was particularly captivated by the work of Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian inventor who had made significant advancements in wireless communication.

In 1912, as Lee neared the end of his studies at Clark, he received an incredible opportunity. The Marconi International Marine Communication Company, a leading wireless telegraphy company, offered him a position as a junior wireless operator aboard the RMS Titanic. This was an exciting opportunity for Lee to work with the latest wireless technology while traveling on the world’s most luxurious ocean liner.

On April 10, 1912, the Titanic set sail from Southampton, England, bound for New York City. Lee took up his duties as the junior wireless operator, working alongside senior wireless operator Jack Phillips. Their task was to maintain constant communication with other ships and relay messages to and from passengers.

Tragically, on the night of April 14, 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean and began to sink. As chaos ensued, Lee and Phillips stayed at their posts, sending out distress signals to nearby ships. Their heroic efforts were instrumental in alerting the RMS Carpathia, which ultimately rescued over 700 survivors.

Lee survived the disaster and returned to Worcester, deeply affected by the tragedy. He continued his studies at Clark University, where he received support and guidance from his professors, who recognized the extraordinary experiences he had endured.

After completing his studies, Lee dedicated his career to wireless telegraphy and radio communication. He went on to work for various companies, advancing the field of wireless technology and contributing to its rapid development. His expertise and experiences aboard the Titanic shaped his understanding of the importance of effective communication and safety at sea.

Reginald Lee’s story serves as a poignant reminder of the enduring legacy of the Titanic sinking. It also highlights the often unexpected connections that exist between historical events and educational institutions like Clark University.

Quite a story, isn’t it? Except everything you just read about Reginald Lee is a lie. He never existed. Didn’t go to Clark University, didn’t work for Marconi and didn’t serve as Junior Wireless Operator on the Titanic. That duty fell to real-life Harold Bride, who, working alongside Jack Phillips, stayed at his post, repeatedly sending SOS messages, and was swept overboard, but made it to a life boat, and lived until 1956. Phillips did not survive the sinking.

The fictional account was written by ChatGPT, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) program, and was sent to me by my daughter, who is the Senior Writer & Content Editor for Clark University. She saw it on Instagram and, unlike most people who would see it, did a bit of research, because it concerned her University.

It turns out the Instagram Post came from a Clark University alum, who “asked (ChatGPT) a simple question about writing a historical story about the connectivity between Clark University and the Titanic.” The answer came back as a total fabrication.

The alum cautioned, “Be careful with ChatGPT.”

Be careful, indeed. Just think of the possibilities. If used wisely, it seems obvious that AI programs like ChatGPT can be powerful engines for good. But what if they aren’t? The story of Reginald Lee shows convincingly how these programs — that are learning all the time, every second of the day — can create potent disinformation, harmful disinformation.

In another example, a reporter asked ChatGPT for information about the Belgian chemist and philosopher, Antoine de Machelet, who is fictitious and has as much reality as a Harry Potter Unicorn. Without pause, the program replied with a cogent, well-organized biography populated entirely with imaginary facts. Compared to the demonic potential of ChatGPT, George Santos has the credibility of Pope Francis.

It’s important to know there are two kinds of artificial intelligence. The first, the one we’re experiencing right now is Narrow AI. Narrow AI is AI that deals with one, narrowly defined task, or a small set of related tasks. Think of the programs that now read Xrays, and do that far better than humans can. Or, think of the algorithms now reading the Resumé you just submitted and worked so hard to make stand out. Or, think of the story of Reginald Lee, which you probably would have believed if I hadn’t told you it was a complete fabrication.

The second kind of AI is Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). General AI programs are systems that demonstrate intelligent behavior across a range of cognitive tasks. It is self-aware. Think of the two Blade Runner movies, or the Terminator movies, or the whole premise behind Battlestar Gallactica. Experts think we are more than a decade away from anything even remotely resembling an embryonic General AI. We might never get to it.

But right now, Narrow AI is scary enough. It has the quality of deep-learning, which is a massive advance of technology. In traditional learning, humans, in one form or another, teach other humans how to perform a task. But Narrow AI, like ChatGPT, requires minimal instruction and instantly accesses a massive amount of data, and then learns by itself constantly.

The problem is not that Narrow AI is really smart, which it is, but that it is incredibly stupid in unpredictable ways: In one case, when New York Times technology reporter Kevin Roose was testing Microsoft’s Bing Chatbot code-named “Sydney,” Sydney tried to get him to leave his wife and marry it! Subsequently, Microsoft explained Sydney could become “confused, causing it to have disturbing and bizarre exchanges with users.” Right.

There is monumental good that will come from Narrow AI programs like ChatGPT. But I’m thinking of our current political landscape and our upcoming 2024 elections. The potential for disinformation is enormous, disinformation that comes at you like a Gatling gun and is entirely believable. Without any regulation, political, moral or ethical, an unsuspecting and unaware public can be moved from one position to another and never know it happened.

As everyone knows, disinformation has been happening on social media platforms for the last few years, but that has been human driven in mostly traditional ways. Narrow AI has the potential to explode disinformation’s impact in never-before-seen ways.

ChatGPT and other programs like it are two-edged swords, and each edge is exceedingly sharp.

Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels would have loved these programs.