We read a lot these days about the global boom of interest and investment in Artificial Intelligence. PricewaterhouseCoopers projects that it will add more to global GDP by 2030 than the current output of China and India combined. Artificial Intelligence, or its commonly used acronym “AI,” has quickly become part of the lexicon in discussions around technology, economic, and policy. Conversation about AI generates a mix of emotions: excitement that it could make dreams of flying cars and the promise of new lifesaving drugs a reality, as well as concern that advanced technology will erase jobs. Some even fear that it will eventually lead to robots taking over and bringing the demise of human freedom (see the Terminator movies). But perhaps the most common reaction is that of confusion over what exactly AI means, and if and how it could improve our quality of life.

Webster’s Dictionary defines AI as “the capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behavior.” I do not find this definition to be very helpful given the scale of human behavior, from recognizing the difference between the colors red and green to composing a symphony. Here is another, more useful definition: “The development of computer systems able to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence including visual perception, speech recognition, translation between languages, and decision-making.” The first three tasks seem both useful and harmless enough. But replacing decision-making is trickier. Do we really want computers making decisions for us? And if so, would AI decision-making improve our quality of life? Let me attempt to offer an example of how AI could make a meaningful difference in people’s lives.

For the past five years, in partnership with the Indiana Housing & Community Development Authority, our Moving Forward program has been working to build some of the most sustainable and affordable housing developments in the nation. They all have advanced energy efficiency technologies and integrated transportation options for residents. In 2020, we took on the additional challenge of creating two inclusive affordable housing properties that would allow individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) to live independently.

To accomplish this goal, our developer teams will be incorporating smart-home technologies that utilize AI to help IDD residents live more safely and comfortably. Examples include:

  • Programming a set of actions for home appliances based on a single verbal command to reduce cognitive burden,
  • Analyzing sensor data to warn caregivers if there is a danger such as leaving on a stove burner unattended,
  • Augmented reality software that can help navigate new situations for the first time, and
  • Wayfinding apps that can help support independent travel.

All of these tools are powered by AI and will have a direct and immediate impact on the lives of some of our most vulnerable citizens, improving their ability to feel they are a part of the community. Over time, we hope to incorporate additional AI technologies such as autonomous vehicles (another area of focus for Energy Systems Network) that can empower persons with IDD to travel more independently and safely to work, school, doctor appointments, or just to visit friends and family.

There is certainly an important debate that is and should be happening regarding the appropriate and ethical use of AI. It is imperative that any negative outcomes, such as jobs being displaced by automation, are being mitigated, but the ability of AI to improve and even save lives should be acknowledged and advanced. If pursued smartly, AI can grow Indiana’s innovation economy through new companies being formed and established companies keeping more of their R&D in the state. Next time you hear about AI, try not to think of the Terminator – instead, consider your neighbors’ right to live a healthy and independent life.

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