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THIS COULD ALTER MOST EVERYTHING From health care to finance to driving, artificial intelligence could change our world

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When many people think of artificial intelligence, they envision a science fiction future where lifelike robots interact with people and show charm and a deep understanding of the human condition.

That’s not quite it, at least not yet, said Michael Bartolacci, professor of information sciences and technology at Penn State Berks.

“People have a misconception. They think robotics is AI. It’s not,” he said. “Traditionally, robotics are used in manufacturing. A robot is trained and it does the same thing over and over again. They don’t think. They’re not R2D2 or C3PO.”

Artificial intelligence, or AI, is in use in various industries today. It’s just a lot more simple and ordinary than the AI dreamed up by science fiction writers.

At its most basic, artificial intelligence is a computer programmed to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence, Bartolacci said. Examples include visual perception, speech recognition and decision making.

AI programming already is in wide use in the automotive industry, health care, stock market prediction, customer service and even in people’s homes.

If it seems a bit overwhelming, it is.

“There’s a lot of confusion in the market about what AI actually is,” said Doug Eadline founder of Basement Supercomputing, a Bethlehem-based high performance computing software and clusters provider. “It’s one of those blanket terms that is thrown out to cover a lot things that aren’t actually artificial intelligence, but are on the spectrum.”

DIGITAL DIAGNOSIS

AI technology is transforming health care with its ability to sort through layers and layers of data to determine likely treatment outcomes, identify at-risk individuals and improve diagnostics.

For example, an AI system can often detect cancer earlier than a human radiologist can. It can see smaller details and can analyze a spot found on an X-ray and compare it with data from other patients with similar results.

It can use data from former patients to determine the likelihood that something is cancer and then ascertain what treatments have been used successfully for such a diagnosis.

CODE PREDICTION

Artificial intelligence also can help with heart care. Ochner Health System of southeast Louisiana recently launched an AI tool that assists doctors in analyzing data to predict which patients are more likely to deteriorate after treatment for a heart-related ailment.

The system then triggers a “pre-code” alert to let the health care providers intervene sooner.

Bartolacci said AI can be developed for something as simple as the concept of “a doc in the box,” he said. A patient’s symptoms can be entered, prompting suggestions for a diagnosis.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN

Some of the most basic AI technologies have been in cars and trucks for years.

If a car has lane assist to keep it from drifting out of its lane – that’s AI. The system has been programmed to recognize when a vehicle is leaving its proper lane and make adjustments to keep it driving within the lines.

Such automotive technology includes the simple warning beep that lets the driver know another vehicle is coming too close when making a turn. It also includes driverless vehicles now being developed that may someday have people as passengers as AI takes control of the wheel.

Even for drivers without assistive technology, artificial intelligence is everywhere on the nation’s highways.

“Every time you go on the turnpike, [the authorities] take a picture of your license plate that is put through a trained network of optical character recognition,” Eadline said.

BANK ON IT?

Stock market investors have been trying to use computer algorithms to predict what the market is going to do since the earliest days of computing.

With the ability to analyze more data faster and sort through years of historical data in a micro-second, those predictors are more popular than ever.

Boston-based Opimas LLC, an international financial research and analysis firm, recently issued a report on the use of AI in financial management and saw some good things.

“Opimas does foresee myriad benefits coming to financial players in the future from the robots and machines that think and learn and analyze mountains of unorganized data,” the report said.

Opimas predicted that by 2021 finance companies around the world would be investing $2.8 billion annually in AI-related technology.

While that seems like great news, Bartolacci cautions that no perfect program has ever been developed to accurately forecast the stock market because there are too many unpredictable factors – mostly the human element.

DATA IN, JOBS OUT

Still, AI can be reprogrammed based on its past success-fail rate, which gives it a continuing chance to improve.

Even if it’s not perfect, it’s being used and already is replacing humans in the financial field. Opimas predicts 230,000 jobs could disappear from the financial industry by 2025.

Opimas isn’t the only one making such a prediction.

Anthony Jenkins, former CEO of Barclays Bank, predicts that over the next 10 years, advances in technology – especially in artificial intelligence – could cause the number of people employed by the financial services sector to decline by as much as 50 percent.

A VOICE ON THE PHONE

Not being able to get a human on the phone long has been a complaint of consumers using customer service help lines.

And with increasing AI technology, that isn’t likely going to change, Eadline said.

White collar jobs, such as customer service operators, are among the hardest hit by AI technology.

That’s because AI technology is getting better at “thinking” like a human and getting users the info they need faster, all while decreasing costs because of lower staffing needs.

“True AI is about action now, but this can make a prediction about what someone wants and take action,” Eadline said.

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

A voice-activated AI customer service system can ask basic questions such as, “What can I help you with?”

Then it can direct the customer to the appropriate department or directly to the answers he or she seeks without having to go through a human.

And, Eadline noted, it’s not just phone service. Chat bots are becoming popular on websites to provide real-time answers to consumers using a text-based AI program.

HOME SWEET AI HOME

AI technology has become so pervasive, it has found its way into many people’s homes.

Anyone who has an in-home digital assistant, such as Amazon’s Echo or Google Home, is interacting with an AI program.

It uses voice recognition and other AI programming to answer simple questions such as, “What’s the weather forecast for the weekend?” Or, “What’s the score in the Phillies’ game?”

And it can turn on and off your lights with a simple command.

THE GOOD NEWS

With the use of ever-improving AI technology, businesses are able to do things quicker, better and more cheaply than ever before.

It’s even saving lives.

But it is definitely going to cost jobs.

THE BAD NEWS

Wall Street isn’t the only area that could face job cuts with the proliferation of artificial intelligence. AI will be hitting hard many other white collar jobs, according to most experts.

Meanwhile, blue collar jobs still are at risk as robotics and automation evolve alongside AI. It means that almost all industries will be affected by technology in some way in terms of the number of jobs and the kind of jobs.

But to what degree?

A 2017 analysis combining the effect of AI and automated robotics by accounting and consulting firm PwC showed that technology could take as many as 38 percent of jobs in the next 15 years.

THE LIMITATIONS

Total AI takeover is unlikely because of the technology’s lack of basic human common sense.

“It doesn’t know if an action makes sense or not. It just doesn’t know,” Eadline said. “It’s like a copier when you’ve hit print too many times. It won’t stop printing.”

Humans and their organic intelligence are still needed.

“Any machine is only as smart as the people that program it,” Bartolacci said. “We still haven’t figured out the human brain. And until we do, we’ll never have a machine as smart as a human being.” •

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Stacy Wescoe

Stacy Wescoe

Writer and online editor Stacy Wescoe has her finger on the pulse of the business community in the Greater Lehigh Valley and keeps you up-to-date with technology and trends, plus what coworkers and competitors are talking about around the water cooler — and on social media. She can be reached at stacyw@lvb.com or 610-807-9619, ext. 4104. Follow her on Twitter at @morestacy and on Facebook. Circle Stacy Wescoe on .

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