Task Force to Study Evolving AI Technology in Alabama

A recent resolution established the Alabama Commission on Artificial Intelligence and Associated Technologies, which will study the growth of artificial intelligence in the state, its potential uses and its effect on quality of life.

by The Anniston Star / June 10, 2019
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(TNS) — Cows prefer to be milked by machines rather than humans.

Facial recognition systems have a hard time recognizing dark-skinned people.

Machines can be trained to identify cancerous cells on a slide under a microscope.

Those are some of the insights that emerged when the state of Vermont set up a task force to study what could happen as governments and businesses begin putting artificial intelligence to use more often.

Alabama is setting up a similar AI task force, created by a legislative resolution last month.

The resolution establishes the Alabama Commission on Artificial Intelligence and Associated Technologies to study the growth of artificial intelligence in the state, its potential uses in various private and public sectors and AI’s effect on Alabama residents and their quality of life.

Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Birmingham, sponsored the resolution. In an emailed statement, he said that recognizing the potential effects of AI on Alabama’s industries and workforce was important for the state’s economic growth.

“We have to have a discussion on building an AI-ready workforce and formulate policies to continue the transformative technologies of AI in a responsible way,” Waggoner’s statement said.

According to the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, artificial intelligence involves teaching computers to do human-like tasks.

Government applications of artificial intelligence often include using computers to process and analyze large amounts of data to map trends or spot patterns in crime, traffic or weather, according to NASCIO.

Artificial intelligence has more mundane uses as well. According to a 2018 Nielsen study, 24 percent of American households use smart speakers like an Amazon Echo or a Google Home. These speakers react to voice commands and can control music playback, connect with and control other smart home devices, serve as alarms or timers or even give users answers to questions about the weather, the news or trivia.

Vermont state Rep. Brian Cina said he sponsored the legislation creating his state’s Artificial Intelligence Task Force because he felt it was a quickly growing field to which governments were not paying enough attention.

“If we as a society didn't start paying attention and have a public dialogue about the role of AI and its impact and its benefits and risks and where that field is going then we might find ourselves in a tough spot,” he said.

Fei Hu, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Alabama, said the adaptation of AI is necessary for the growth and future of Alabama’s economy. He said that the state should focus on training the workforce and students how to work with this technology.

“Right now Alabama's economy is still not in the top 10 in the whole country,” he said. “If we want to catch up with the national trends and the future of civilization, especially smart cities, big data and the internet of things, then we need to speed up… If we still rely on farming products, that means our economy can never catch up.”

However, Hu said he cautions against moving too quickly in adopting AI technology.

“It's not so mature right now,” he said. “If you switch to AI too quickly, if you try to replace manual operations, we can make mistakes…. Some mistakes can make the whole industry stop working, or it can make people die in autonomous vehicles, or make rockets fail.”

Hu said that AI can be used on farms to detect moisture levels in the soil and automatically adjust irrigation systems depending on how wet or dry the land is.

Paul Godin, a Vermont-based salesman of robotic milking systems for cows, told the Vermont task force that milking robots are able to analyze milk, identify deficiencies in cow’s diets and adjust their food accordingly. The machines also allow cows to be milked only when the animals want to be milked. While this leads to happier and healthier cows, it cuts down on how many humans are needed to care for them, Cina said.

“We've heard from one economist that if we do things right, we can actually build a really healthy economy where people’s standard of living is much higher than it ever has been because we can use automation and machines to like make people's jobs easier,” Cina said. “But we have to figure out how do we structure the economy so people can still make a living.”

Gary Butler, the CEO of Camgian Microsystems, a Mississippi-based tech company that works with AI, said the study of AI’s impact on the economy and the workforce is a good first step for incorporating AI into both goverment and the private sector.

“Understanding the ramifications, that I think is an important thing for for us all to do, including the government,” Butler said. “I do think AI over the long term will usher in a lot of changes in how we develop technology and how we implement technology.”

A report on state governments’ use of AI by NASCIO concluded that AI should be used to complement human work or free up humans from back-office tasks such as filing paperwork.

Hu said that AI had uses in many industries including weather, where it could be used to better predict tornadoes.

“If we can predict tornadoes, exactly where it would go to, we can make preparations one hour before it comes,” he said. “We can use AI technology. We can do this to predict more accurately."

He also said it could be used to connect doctors with each other and patients while allowing the sharing of medical data remotely and to cut down on traffic incidents.

“We can manage the whole state's transportation system, make everything automatic wherever you go so you know which road has congestion or is jammed,” he said. “You can avoid the bad conditions on that road and automatically go different routes.”

According to the NASCIO report, Mississippi uses an AI chatbot to answer basic questions from citizens about driver license renewals, password reset requests and more. Minnesota's Pollution Control Agency uses AI to analyze basic weather data. Vermont uses it to predict bridge deterioration and how long a newly paved road will last before it needs upkeep.

“NASCIO sees AI as an emerging issue and one that will certainly change the way governments do business and the way citizens interact with government agencies and state-run services,” the report said.

Cina said the Vermont task force is tentatively considering suggesting the creation of a government position to monitor AI and related issues such as data privacy and data ownership.

“What's coming out is that a lot of concerns about AI aren't just AI-related,” Cina said.

Cina also said that federal oversight regarding AI and the study of related technologies would would help states work with multinational companies whose business crosses state lines.

He said there is a concern that companies can use AI and customer data in ways that could be potentially explosive and cannot be regulated at the state level.

“We might be able to promote ethical development of AI on the state level in terms of using AI for the public good, but on the federal and international level there needs to be some work,” he said.

Overall, Cina said, the study of the effects of the AI is in its early stages and more states should look into the ramifications and uses of the technology.

“The ultimate conclusion I'm coming to is that it's the tip of an iceberg that were we're dealing with right now,” Cina said.

©2019 The Anniston Star (Anniston, Ala.).Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.