Fall 2017 Stories

Artificial Youngstown

By John Stran

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio: If the future of Youngstown could be described in two words, those two words may be artificial intelligence.

How artificial intelligence will affect Youngstown’s future is not any different than how it will affect other cities in America; a gradual process according to Cameron Hughes that has already begun.

Hughes is a programmer analyst for Youngstown State University; a job involving the designing and testing of computer programs. He also wrote a book with his wife called Robot Programming: A Guide to Controlling Autonomous Robots that talks about creating tasks a robot can do by itself.

Hughes said advancements in artificial intelligence are and will be made in increments so small it may be hard for people to notice any change at all.

“The future will feel like today,” Hughes said. “It’s already in our lives but we don’t tend to notice it.”

  The Future is Here

Some of the futuristic AI capabilities today exist in cellphones through text to speech and GPS technology.

Hughes said it’s not necessarily the product that will change in the future but rather, “it is the product’s ability to provide convenience in people’s lives that will change. These products will not only consist of cell-phones, but of numerous products in everyday life.’

“Our traffic, water and health care systems are currently full of AI technology,” Hughes said. “There’s automation everywhere and the future will only be more automation.”

The automation aspect of AI is what YSU Professor Mark Vopat said separates it from other technologies. Vopat said until the robot becomes somewhat autonomous and can think, it is just a cool piece of technology.

“There are plenty of robots that can do amazing things with a human operator doing everything but that are not artificial intelligence,” Vopat said.

Vopat teaches philosophy and is also the director of the James Dale Ethics Center at YSU. His experience in technology includes being the chair of the Academic Senate Technology Committee and of the Integrated Technologies Steering Committee.

Vopat said some AI that Youngstown currently depends on is programs running the utility grid and sensory street lights. He also mentioned routing devices which determine the routes delivery drivers take.

“My neighbor is a DHL driver and he used to figure out the route he would have to take to deliver packages,” Vopat said. “Now he just scans the package and the computer tells him where to go.”

Yet Vopat said he feels most of the AI technologies in all of Youngstown are on YSU’s campus because of Youngstown’s lack of industry.

“Youngstown faces many unique challenges and I’m not sure whether AI will help, hurt or both.” Vopat said.

This quote, in a broader sense, was the main discussion point at the event “We Come in Peace,” a panel discussion trying to determine what AI is, and how it will affect people in the future.

In the discussion, software engineer Chris Slee separated the terms artificial intelligence and machine learning. He described AI as machines doing something society thinks is smart and machine learning as giving a machine data and letting it make decisions.  He did not fully separate the two, saying machine learning is an implementation of artificial intelligence.

As the debate continued, it appeared everyone had a slightly different definition on what artificial intelligence is and isn’t.

AI and Human-Robot interaction researcher Shiqi Zang said he felt the term has been progressively added to; making it difficult for AI to live up to all of its tasks.

The panel seemed to mutually agree on how AI will affect people. The response was no one was quite sure. What was established was the future of AI lies within the hands of those who program it, thus, it is up to them as to how the future unfolds.

Something to Lose

If AI does become more potent in the Youngstown area, setbacks and advancements may both be prevalent.

Vopat brought up the use of self-driving vehicles and the negative impact it would have.

“A lot of jobs would be lost in the truck driving field,” Vopat said. “If the trucking becomes automated, what happens to the people who are let go?”

Vopat said AI might start replacing workers in other white collar jobs as well. It may take away more jobs people find to be tedious and low-skill.

What Hughes has against AI is its longevity, saying its convenience factor is only short term. He also feels the incorrigible AI is not good for the future either.

If a robot is programmed to carry out a certain task and this task cannot be changed once it is programmed, the machine is incorrigible. Hughes said this is not safe and corrigible AI, or a machine whose mission can be changed, are much more beneficial to the future.

Any rapid advancement in AI technologies poses risks. Some programmers may create or edit a product quickly because they want it to be on the market as soon as possible in order to make a profit. Another reason for quickly creating something is simply because they can.

“This is where ethics education and considering social implications of technology comes into play,” Vopat said. “Those developing the technology have to understand that just because they can create something doesn’t mean they should.”

Vopat said creators need to be aware of how their product will affect others and how they must learn to put morality in front of technology.

Something to Gain

AI and technology can help reignite the area’s appeal as a place to come and open a business and start a life.

“Advanced technologies are helping Youngstown State build up its infrastructure, which is attracting more students to the campus,” Vopat said. “If more students are living on or near campus, more housing may be created downtown and some of these students may decide that they want to work or start a business in Youngstown after graduation.”

Cities that use technology to better convenience everyday life are known as smart cities. The closest city to Youngstown considered to be one of the most advanced smart cities is Columbus. Its smart city status rose after receiving $50 million in grants to improve technological capabilities.

A smart city could benefit citizens by creating more convenient mobility through smart parking and advanced traffic management. Technologies in water and waste management could also improve water quality monitoring and waste water treatment.

If Youngstown where to ever become a smart city, Hughes said it could be beneficial but it must be done properly.

“It would be a smart move to become a smart city because it would make Youngstown much more attractive,” Hughes said. “What we have to avoid is becoming an almost smart city and let politics get in the way of everything.”

What AI takes away from physical labor jobs, it gives to those who create and sell the technology.

“The companies who engineer and sell the AI will benefit the most long term,” Hughes said. “I believe that everyone will benefit but only in the short term.”

How AI will progress in Youngstown may boil down to how accepting people are of it and how much people will let it dictate their lives. If the majority of society thrives off AI, companies may never quit creating new AI because the money they are taking in.

The abilities of AI that are currently being felt in Youngstown may not be as extreme as other major cities but enough that it is affecting every Youngstown citizen whether they know it or not. Its ability to replace jobs and at the same time advance society can be rather confusing and whether people praise or oppose AI, there’s no escaping it.

To view a brief timeline of Artificial Intelligence, click below.

Copy of Historical Timeline Template Google Doc.docx