Far from the stuff of fantasy, artificial intelligence (AI) has become an integral part of our lives.
Even the most tech-adverse among us use AI, perhaps unknowingly, when we type a query into Google or plug in GPS. Those who embrace technology, on the other hand, actively look for ways AI can improve their work and personal lives.
Though it seems AI is a new phenomenon, the technology has been around since 1956. While AI’s popularity has waxed and waned, it gained legitimacy in the 1990s and 2000s when a chess computer program beat the grand chess master Garry Kasparov and speech recognition software was installed on Windows. The factor that made these innovations possible was the ability of computers to store and process ever-larger amounts of information.
Today we are in the era of “big data,” and while AI seems ubiquitous, it is just beginning to reveal its full potential. AI is expected to have global as well as individual impact in the future – if it hasn’t already.
“You can learn very quickly from data when you build models to make better decisions,” said David Reeser, CEO and co-founder of the Wilmington-based AI company OpiAID. “AI and the Internet of Things (all objects connected to the internet) is the next industrial revolution.”
WHAT EXACTLY IS AI?
Simply put, AI is machines performing tasks that require intelligence such as reasoning, learning from experience and making decisions.
Within AI are different subsets. One is machine learning, which is when machines are programmed to use data and algorithms to make predictions. When a retail store predicts items a person will like based on their past purchases, it is using machine learning. Deep learning is a subset of machine learning. In deep learning, the algorithms are complex and abstract, which enables a machine to continuously analyze and learn from the data by itself. Examples of deep learning are facial recognition and programs that identify credit card fraud in real time. Deep learning is the technology behind the explosion of AI applications.
A WORLD OF OPPORTUNITY
AI is used in virtually every industry. While AI has made substantive inroads in finance, fintech and health care, other industries are not far behind. AI is being applied in fields as varied as sales and marketing, resource management, climate change, hospitality, transportation, insurance, education, customer service and construction, among others.
“Any industry that collects large amounts of data can use AI,” said Alan Rupp, CEO of the AI company SentryTell, which is located in Wilmington.
The opportunities AI presents extend to individuals and small businesses as well.
Phil Everhart, the president and founder of SmartFox Technologies, another Wilmington-based AI business, asserts that whenever there is a specific problem that can be solved by analyzing large amounts of data, it has the potential for an AI solution.
As a sampling of Wilmington’s AI companies show, the problems solved by AI technology are quite diverse: New Hanover Regional Medical Center uses Viz LVO’s AI technology to identify strokes; SmartFox uses AI for sales forecasting; SentryTell, to monitor seniors in their homes and alert caregivers when something is awry; OpiAID, to assist those in recovery; and Lapetus Solutions, to provide risk assessment and advice.
AI technology, however, doesn’t just help businesses. It’s also behind innovations such as self-directed vacuum cleaners and tools like Alexa that individuals use in their daily lives.
TO TAKE THE AI PLUNGE OR WAIT
A number of large companies have already brought AI into their business processes, either by partnering with organizations that use AI tools or by building their own AI technology teams, according to Reeser.
A survey by NewVantage Partners reports that nine of 10 leading businesses have invested in AI technologies.
The story is different for small- and mid-sized companies. If the technology these businesses need is currently available, which depends on a specific market, they may move ahead with AI, Reeser said.
Otherwise, most small- and medium-sized businesses are waiting to see how advantageous AI is before investing in it. But Everhart expects that will change within the next three years. He predicts that even local businesses, such as a restaurant or a business offering a consumer-based product, will adopt AI if it can improve profitability and help owners make better decisions – especially if the business is competing against a big organization like Walmart.
“Once AI takes off and small businesses see its success, everyone will want to be a part of it,” Everhart said. “Small companies will want to follow big business’s success, so they get a piece of the local pie.”
FEARS AND DOUBTS
Despite its promise, AI is not without its critics. People fear that AI could incur the loss of privacy, racial profiling, information bias and the elimination of jobs.
AI proponents stress that these issues are not indigenous to AI and that businesses can minimize the problems. As an example, AI data hacks are less likely to occur if the information is stored on secure, cloud-based systems that have layers of encryption, such as those provided by large companies, Rupp said.
The issue of faulty data will be addressed by the market, according to Everhart. Products that use imprecise data will fail, he said.
“You can’t have 40% accuracy with AI,” Everhart said. “You must make sure the data is accurate. If not, companies won’t adopt the product.”
And AI likely will replace some jobs, especially those that are repetitive and mundane, but it will also create new ones. The World Economic Forum predicts that AI will eliminate 85 million jobs and create 97 million new jobs by 2025 – a gain of 12 million jobs.
Everhart said he expects that at some point the federal government will develop regulations to ensure AI is used responsibly and ethically.
IS WILMINGTON THE NEXT AI HUB?
While a recent study by Indeed Hiring Lab showed that major cities are maintaining their status as AI hubs, smaller cities with the right ecosystems are gaining traction. And Wilmington has many of the elements that attract AI businesses. That fact was recognized by Startup Genome, which ranked Wilmington as one of the top 100 best emerging technology ecosystems in the world.
One factor that earns Wilmington that rating is that it already has a spot on the technology map, said Jim Roberts, founder of Wilmington’s Network for Entrepreneurs and Wilmington Angels for Local Entrepreneurs.
In addition to technology companies such as nCino and Playerspace, the area boasts a number of AI startups, he adds.
Wilmington also has a strong and growing pool of talent, which is important because it enables techies to share ideas and support each other. The Wilmington tech community includes technology students graduating from the University of North Carolina Wilmington; technology graduates from universities in the surrounding cities who are locating here; and the growing number of UNCW graduates who have moved away, gained experience and returned to the area, Roberts said.
Additionally, Wilmington is also attracting technology experts from Silicon Valley and other technology centers who can work remotely. Wilmington might also see an influx of tech workers who will be working at Apple’s future headquarters in Raleigh, Reeser said.
Another contributor to Wilmington’s standing as an AI hub is its covey of retired executives who are eager to mentor technology entrepreneurs, according to Roberts.
As AI progresses, it will have a significant impact on quality of life, Rupp said. “The more sophisticated AI gets, the more we can rely on it to make our day-to-day lives better.”