Maine businesses and schools get smart at the AI meeting
AI sounds like something being developed in the strictest confidence in a Silicon Valley lab or on the campus of a high-tech research university.
But a study by Portland-based Northeastern University’s Roe Institute found that AI is already at work in Maine, and is gaining a firm grip in the corporate and educational worlds here.
One example: Maine hospitals are developing AI systems that take on the tasks of delivering drugs and treatments to patients, while also helping detect cancer or alerting cardiologists when they must intervene to prevent a heart attack.
Scientists at Colby College are using artificial intelligence to scan billions of galaxies imaged by the James Webb Space Telescope to find some of the oldest star clusters in the universe. Norges Savings Bank uses AI-based hardware and computers to automate repetitive tasks while protecting customers’ sensitive financial data.
This latest example illustrates the approach of many Maine companies and organizations to AI, explains Osama Fayyad, executive director of the Institute for Experimental Artificial Intelligence at Northeastern University. Norway Savings deliberately draws lines about how far artificial intelligence will reach its customers’ accounts, but it’s also keen to explore the technology’s potential.
Fayyad said he understands these concerns — the institute is encouraging potential users of AI to do their research but keep moving forward.
“I think we can do a lot more than that,” Fayyad told about 400 people at the Roe Institute’s conference on artificial intelligence in Portland on Friday.
Fayyad said the biggest appeal lies in the demystification of artificial intelligence.
At its simplest, AI is about using computers to perform tasks that would normally require a level of human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision making, and language translation. But he said there are limits to what computers can do.
“Many people think there is some kind of black magic to make AI work,” he said. “There isn’t.”
AI is generally seen as a tool for high-tech industries, but the Roux Institute study found that it plays a role in Maine’s heritage industries as well.
For example, AI is being used to help analyze data on fish stocks in the Gulf of Maine, and has been used to help predict red tides or other algal blooms that threaten the shellfish industry. The researchers are also trying to determine whether AI capabilities such as image recognition and data visualization would allow regulators to use the technology to replace human observers on fishing vessels in federal waters off Maine.
AI can also be used to determine the tissue structure of the catch of the day, so fish are not misclassified to consumers.
Artificial intelligence has become an important tool in forestry as well. The artificial intelligence behind a network of wireless sensors operated by the University of Maine. Among the other data the sensors collect — and the AI analyzes — is a measure of soil moisture, a key factor in tree growth. This helps scientists determine optimal times to harvest trees in remote areas of Maine’s vast forests. AI programs can also look for signs of invasive insect species that threaten forest health.
Artificial intelligence is also being used to help building owners in Maine improve electricity storage from rooftop solar panels. The AI helps determine when the building’s air conditioners or heat pumps should be turned on and when the system should be switched on to store electricity for later use.
The Roe Institute report stated that AI is even a tool that can help human manufacturing become more efficient. Even if the process is primarily human-driven, the report said, AI can suggest changes to the process that will shorten lead times, improve production capabilities, and make material deliveries more efficient.
Fayad said that unlocking the promise of AI will require paying more attention to how it is deployed in Maine.
He said the Roe Institute report can help give analysts an idea of Maine’s starting point.
“Now we need to understand how the flight will progress,” he said.
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