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The State of AI Today
Not everyone is happy to see artificial intelligence on the rise in the workplace—and justifiably so. But where is that nascent technology seeing a positive effect without compromising the human element?

by Madeleine Maccar

David Hunter understands how easy it can be to approach AI with anything from wary suspicion to open hostility. For those who can’t shake their terrible visions of a Hollywood-esque apocalypse, he has some practical, lived-in advice.

“It’s kind of scary to a lot of people out there, who are thinking of Terminator and the machines taking over and all that,” says the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program (NJMEP) resource and territory business development manager at Rockwell Automation. “It certainly can be complex but it doesn’t have to be. If you start off with a smaller set of data-gathering AI and how you utilize it, you get comfortable and you start building upon it—before you know it, that big, scary thing you were worried about is now something that is done and implemented subconsciously because you’re utilizing it day to day and you just keep leveling up.”

AI, the commonly accepted shorthand for artificial intelligence, runs the gamut of technologies and applications. An automated process like programming code that performs a repetitive task, whether it’s crunching numbers or, more recently, the language-driven ChatGPT regurgitating its user-fed understanding of a topic; a chatbot that’s been “trained” to field and interact with customer input either through text messages or website interfaces; a database informed robot serving as an extra pair of eyes: They’re all examples of the machine-learning processes that are finding an increased acceptance in the professional world’s workflows.

And those bringing AI’s cutting-edge technology—including today’s nascent artificial intelligence and its rapidly evolving and improving applications—to the Virtua hospital system’s five locations also are not unfamiliar with meeting some resistance whenever they introduce a new tool to their teams’ toolkits.

“Even highly educated people have a little skepticism when you say ‘AI,’” notes Gregory Seltzer, MD, medical director of Virtua Health’s GI and digestive health. “A backup camera is the best example: Once you do use it, you start to realize it’s better and how much it helps you. I think everyone who uses it starts to realize that this is the future—and it’s not just helping us but, more importantly, it’s helping patients.”

A negative response to AI is neither unusual nor unfounded, inspired as it is by a mix of apprehension about change, doubt about deviating from proven processes, fear of relinquishing jobs to machines and other justified concerns. Those who have gone their entire careers without incorporating automation, database-driven codes or robotic assistance into their workflow understandably don’t see the value in what they often equate to a shiny new toy. Some of that pushback flared up when the hospital introduced GI Genius—an intelligent endoscopy module in use at all of Virtua’s locations that employs augmented reality’s visual overlays to help physicians identify difficult-to-spot and potentially cancerous polyps—to colonoscopy procedures as a second pair of eyes pointing out potential problems.

“Some of the reasons they didn’t trust it was because they were worried it would slow them down,” Dr. Seltzer continues. “Or I would hear, ‘I don’t want a machine telling me I did or didn’t do a good colonoscopy.’ And it’s not grading us, per se, but I think they were worried that would be around the corner.”

AI’s public image, especially within the context of its potentially ominous future implications, has taken a hit in recent news cycles. While Hunter’s example of robo-apocalypse concerns might be a real-life though extreme example of the bad PR AI is up against, comparatively more immediate fears do explain why many more can’t meet this newest instance of technological evolution with more optimism and less suspicion.

It’s no secret that artificial intelligence-driven and -adjacent tools have been decimating entire industries’ workforces: Look no further than the months-long strikes that Hollywood’s screenwriters and performers have launched in protest of, among other things, studio threats to digitize actors’ likenesses for in-perpetuity usage and outsource script writing to neural networks like ChatGPT. And with that focus on creative jobs, a whole new fear is introduced to professional fields once considered off-limits to that encroaching technological threat.

But Michael Womack, NJMEP’s marketing and communications manager, notes that integrating AI technology into his job has actually allowed him the time, energy and focus to approach his role with a renewed sense of ingenuity.

“It was able to help me get more creative and figure out different ways to enhance that piece of content,” he begins. “Working with [AI] for the first real time hands-on to do some really hardcore data analytics with my 2023 industry report was unbelievable. Everything was double-checked by a human just for my own paranoia, but it was incredible, the amount of information and data I was able to analyze efficiently. That was a dream.”

It’s also allowed medical professionals at hospital systems like Virtua to reallocate certain aspects of their jobs to an automated process, giving them the ability to dedicate more of their attention to the urgent matters they’re trained to handle.

“We have a text message service using AI to read the text messages patients send,” Dr. Seltzer explains. “It gives the appropriate response, but also knows when to notify us when, as human beings, we should get involved with this. It’s a system that patients have to opt into if they want to use it, but it gives them the ability to ask questions.”

“People hate calling their doctor to say, ‘I need a clarification on that’ because they hate bothering their doctor, but they also don’t want to wait to get an answer,” adds Tarun Kapoor, MD, MBA, senior vice president and chief digital transformation officer at Virtua Health, who oversees Virtua’s Digital Transformation Office.

And, for those individuals who have struggled to find their place in a neurotypical world, AI technology can be the tool that helps them not only succeed but also help others embrace those same life-changing tools.

"I’m severely dyslexic, and one application where I use AI and find it very helpful is with Grammarly, which is an intense proofreading tool,” says Craig D. Becker, Esq., a member of the Camden County Bar Association. “I can see the word in my mind but it might be missing on the page, so having something proofread for me is great.”

But it’s not just a matter of glomming onto innovative technology for the sake of trying something new. There is a trial-and-error period that comes with adding a new tool to the team’s collective toolkit—and before that, there’s research to be done while proactively identifying what that new asset needs to accomplish, beyond being a shiny new toy to hold up as proof of being an innovative organization investing in all the buzzword products.

“As with any technology, I’ve seen manufacturers over-invest without understanding exactly where they’re trying to accomplish—or they try to invest in so many different aspects of their business all at once, rush the training and never realize the actual benefits of a technology,” Womack says. “Those businesses that dip their toe into the water, with the right teams and support infrastructure in place, get the buy-in from their teams and implement [AI] effectively will work through their trial-and-error process and make incremental improvements along the way.”

“A big part of it is setting the expectations: You need to have those outcome-based business conversations about where are we at, where are we going, here’s the process and the steps—and then set expectations,” Hunter agrees. “It’s not just plugging this thing in and poof, we have complete efficiency and optimization. … There’s those steps educationally, and those people who used to be basic operators, you need to work with them to level them up.”

Skipping the all-important exploratory research and holistic understanding of goals, impacts and processes—not to mention disregarding the human component that’s still crucial to optimal success—can be the difference between setting up realistic expectations while patiently trusting the process and frustratedly writing that new technological investment off as wasted time, money and efforts.

“When I talk about best practices, I am thinking of deploying AI like any other manufacturing project: Design is where a lot of projects succeed or fail, and in application design, keeping an eye on how value is achieved and who or what receives and acts on the AI guidance is critical to success,” explains Michael Tay, also an NJMEP member and Rockwell’s analytics platform lead. “Will the AI guidance drive the targeted value reliably or not and if not, redesign the solution. Another part of this trial-and-error is reviewing that design with the change agent: i.e., AI is delivering decision support or decision automation—so who or what will take action that drives value, and are they in agreement … Then reviewing exception cases and making sure the solution captures and does the right thing in expected normal ranges of atypical conditions.”

“It’s one thing to have the technology; it’s another thing to deploy the technology,” explains Dr. Kapoor. “You have to approach technology with an appropriate degree of skepticism. Technology for the sake of technology doesn’t necessarily offer us anything: Just because it’s cool and it beeps isn’t enough. There has to be some meaningful return on the technology, not only for the clinician but also for the patient. And what we thought was beautiful about GI Genius is that there’s an instant return on both: The clinician has an extra set of eyes to double-check them, but the patients also get a double set of eyes that say, ‘Listen, not only only did this top, board-certified gastroenterologist or colonoscopist do your procedure but we actually added in an extra layer just to bring you some extra peace of mind.’”

Medical providers have the extra hurdle of securing not only team buy-in but also patients’ confidence. At the end of June, Virtua opened up the doors of its Voorhees location to provide a gameified, open-to-the-public demonstration of GI Genius, introducing South Jersey to its newest AI tool.

“It really did push the importance of using this technology to find and remove these polyps,” Dr. Seltzer says. “We were showing several videos of the same colonoscopy with and without the AI turned on, and it’s amazing. It’s very easy to miss some of these smaller problems without the AI, and it’s amazing how quickly it can see and register these polyps.”

Improved outcomes don’t have to be medical, either. For Becker, being able to exist as a neurodivergent person in a neurotypical world provides an improved quality of life and ability to do a difficult job well—much to the benefit of the clients he defends, who could also benefit from adaptive tools that help them process information in a meaningful way.

“I do advise some of my clients, especially special-needs kids, to use [AI technology],” the special-education law and criminal-defense attorney explains. “I’ve been trying to advocate a lot for kids with special needs to use this technology because I think it can really help them. Grammarly is great for teaching you how to write, and getting used to using speech-to-text is great because that’s the future. They have to be willing to get past the glitches—but kids who have grown up with this technology are less likely to give up after that first glitch because they know it’s learning what they’re learning and getting better the more they use it.”

Today’s AI experts and those who have been early adopters of that burgeoning technology largely agree that human intervention, involvement and hands-on oversight of any AI product, especially a newly implemented one, is still crucial. Far from automating people out of jobs, it’s adapting a professional role to modern needs: Womack compares it to how elevator operators weren’t left unemployed when that infrastructure technology began incorporating electronic, user-driven button interfaces, but rather were reassigned to more technical jobs that built upon their intimate understanding of how an elevator works.

Because, after all, AI is just like any tool: It’s only as good as the hands it’s in. And proper implementation and mindful execution of tasks is how the technology will continue to both adapt to and learn from the people guiding it toward its best uses for myriad—and potentially life-improving—applications.

“A knowledgeable user can better leverage AI, and our world will be more and more surrounded by AI-driven guidance,” notes Tay. “Some of this will be bad and some good, so education will help both being a better skeptic to evaluate good from useless AI and help adopt useful solutions faster to take advantage of something that is already driving huge values in manufacturing. As it is expected to become more significant in the future, an increasing broader part of manufacturing knowledge about it has increasing importance.”

“I think what we’ll be seeing is this commitment to using technology to improve people’s lives,” Dr. Kapoor notes. “That’s the thing we’re really excited about.”


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Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 13, Issue 8 (August 2023).

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