As companies such as Amazon invest millions in artificial intelligence (AI) research and development, some people in Wilmington are looking at the potential of the Port City to become an AI hub.
Julian Keith, chairman of the University of North Carolina Wilmington psychology department, is one of the individuals behind an ongoing series of AI meetings at the UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE). Keith had been discussing AI for several years over coffee with Mike Orr, who was involved in the early days of IBM Watson, the supercomputer forerunner of today’s AI systems. Curry Guinn, chairman of the UNCW computer science department, joined Keith and Orr in organizing the meetings at the CIE.
“AI is going to be tremendously impactful on culture and economies going forward,” Keith said, explaining that AI development is happening so fast that people may be caught off-guard by the transformative nature of its technology.
As the group started meeting and attracting interest from the business community and players in the local innovation ecosystem, the discussion turned toward the possibility of leveraging resources to make Wilmington a hub for research, development and startups involved with AI systems in markets like financial technology (fintech), pharmaceuticals and health care that could benefit from machine learning capabilities for predictive analytics.
Guinn, who has been involved with AI since the late 1980s, said within the past two to three years, the number of people in the Wilmington area doing work in AI in both industry and academia has exploded. According to Guinn, the immediate impact from machine learning is discovering trends in large amounts of data that are nearly impossible for humans to find, such as those that could be used to detect the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
“AI is so data driven that a lot of the innovation comes from companies with a tremendous amount of data,” he said, pointing to Wilmington’s PPD (clinical research), New Hanover Regional Medical Center (health care), nCino (banking software) and Apiture (fintech), as the types of operations that could take advantage of innovations spurred by a local AI hub.
Whether a Wilmington AI hub will end up being a grassroots configuration of local businesses, academia and the startup community or a centralized entity backed by a major investor such as Amazon – to pay for sought-after senior AI developers like those making $6 million salaries – is still unclear. In any case, investment in human capital is going to be essential for success.
Tom Looney, past president of Cucalorus Connect and an AI hub advocate, said Wilmington has a leg up on competing markets in this aspect.
“In the last 10 years, the attraction of human capital to our region has been far more important than relocating companies here,” he said, adding, “Quality of place is attracting talented professionals who want to be around other people with imagination, making the decisions to live here rather than somewhere else.”