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On any given week, you can find news stories espousing the life-changing benefits and capabilities of artificial intelligence, warning about the dangers of adopting the transformative technology too quickly or pondering the effects artificial intelligence will have on the future of the workplace and employment.

It was one of the concerns for members of the Writers Guild of America when they decided to strike in May. Geoffrey Hinton, a pioneer of AI, made big news when he left his job at Google to warn the world about the risks of the technology. The White House even entered the discussion in May, announcing plans to research risks and devise guidelines around responsible use of AI. And the concept has classrooms, universities and, yes, newsrooms uneasy about what it means for everything from essay writing to the job market for journalists.

Artificial intelligence is an umbrella term for systems and processes that allow computers to simulate human intelligence. It includes machine learning, when data sets help computers “learn” and create predictive algorithms, and deep learning, which takes that a step further to power sophisticated natural language processing and generative AI tools such as the news-dominating ChatGPT from OpenAI.

The fast-moving, ever-changing AI landscape is a lot for the average person or business to take in, and for everything that we know at this point, there’s just as much that remains unknown. But whether you think the continued growth of AI is a revolution that will change the world for the better or you’re worried about what it means for your business, your employees or yourself, you can’t ignore it.

“Stopping it or trying to avoid it or not engaging with it, I think, is not the right answer,” says Jit Kee Chin, chief data and innovation officer for construction and real estate firm Suffolk, which has a location in Estero and others around the U.S., and has been taking advantage of AI and machine learning for a while. “You have to embrace and engage, and you have to play with it. I think playing with it with your eyes wide open, though, is also really important.”

Generating ideas, increasing efficiency

There are many Southwest Florida businesses that already understand the power of machine learning, automation and other forms of artificial intelligence. Over the last few years, Suffolk has been using or experimenting with the technology via applications including image recognition for detecting safety hazards or defects, and predictive algorithms for water leak mitigation and risk mitigation.

“Construction’s obviously a risky business,” says Chin. “We have to manage time, cost, quality and safety risks as we put up a building. Machine learning algorithms can actually help us as a decision aid to flag times when risk is elevated so that we can take the appropriate action. … It lets you know which particular project across your whole portfolio is at higher risk or lower risk at that given week or point of time.”

Fort Myers-based decision science company VeraData specializes in using machine learning and AI for the nonprofit community. It collects and aggregates data about nonprofits in the U.S. and around the world to help nonprofits maximize their fundraising efforts, providing insight they can use to make decisions about related marketing materials and outreach methods.

“What’s the thing that triggers that person psychologically to engage with a mail piece?” asks VeraData founder and CEO Michael Peterman. “What teaser copy should I put on an outer envelope? We’re able to do things that I don’t think anybody else is able to do.”

He sees existing AI capabilities and the advent of ChatGPT and other sophisticated generative AI tools opening up an exciting range of possibilities for businesses. “The whole world benefits from this,” he says. “AI—or machine learning or deep learning—has the ability to unlock so much value and so much potential for all types of businesses. … Sales, marketing, e-commerce, supply chain, manufacturing—it can help you find new customers, grow revenue and optimize decisions.”

Local marketing agencies already are tapping into ChatGPT or similar options to generate ideas, do research on search engine optimization keywords and trending hashtags, even create content for social media posts or blogs.

“We have a lot of clients and a lot of work, and my digital team here is fairly small,” says Seth Mohs, vice president of digital media at CONRIC PR + Marketing in Fort Myers. “It’s going to help us be more creative by automating a lot of the research and writing, while we work on the strategic concepts and topics and ways to engage audiences so we can drive traffic to our clients’ sites.”

“We use it here a lot for brainstorming,” says Harrison Ambs, chief strategy officer at Fort Myers-based digital marketing firm Vectra Digital. “There are certain places we’ve found where it can make things a lot faster and a lot easier for us to get a bunch of ideas. It’s almost like putting a bunch of ideas on a whiteboard that allows the team to pick and choose what they like and build some really great stuff on top of it.”

Health care is another industry in which AI will likely have a big impact. Lee Health sees the technology being used to help physicians prioritize patient messages and requests, and for analyzing patients’ electronic health records to aid doctors in determining diagnoses and treatments.

“What’s going to happen in very short order is a computer program will be able to digest a patient’s chart and give you a synopsis,” says William Carracino, vice president and chief digital health executive at Lee Health. “The doctor is still going to have to be creative, ask questions and choose the best treatment plan. But the digestion of the chart is one of the things I’m waiting for; it’s going to be exciting.”

Other applications for AI include tools for assessing and transcribing conversations between patients and health care providers that quickly insert relevant information into a patient’s chart, as well as technology to help automate the time-intensive process of onboarding new physicians into a health system. Working smarter and more efficiently is important in health care and similar fields in which staffing can be an issue.

“We have a physician shortage; the nursing crisis is on the front page of most newspapers,” says Carracino. “It’s going to be able to augment humans so we can do a better, more creative job with a lower workforce.”

Privacy, ethics, bias, other concerns

The beneficial side of AI doesn’t come without challenges and concerns. To start, the results a company can get from AI are directly related to the information a computer or software program uses to create them.

“AI is very dependent on the quality of the data that you provide, especially if you’re using some of the more sophisticated applications,” says Chrissann R. Ruehle, a management instructor at Florida Gulf Coast University’s Lutgert College of Business who’s been researching AI for years. The common mantra is: Garbage in, garbage out.

That means not only using high-quality data but also data that is free of any bias, especially if it’s being used to screen job applicants or undertake other decision-making tasks when real people are involved.

“In many cases, the output being provided is used for important decisions,” says Ruehle. “It could be affecting people’s ability to secure a mortgage, for example. It could be impacting their ability to get into college or receive life-saving health care treatment. … Companies need to have some processes in place for making sure that there isn’t any bias in the data.”

Businesses also need to think about the sensitivity of the data they’re supplying. Unknowns still exist about exactly how AI tools use and store that data, and the privacy and security of any data supplied. “Every business has trade secrets,” says attorney Mark Nieds, chair of the Intellectual Property Group at Henderson, Franklin, Starnes & Holt P.A. “If you divulge that to the AI, does that mean you’re disclosing your trade secrets and sharing them publicly? Theoretically, AI doesn’t keep the information you give it, but it learns from it. … You should protect your trade secrets regardless of whether there is AI in the mix and adhere to your own procedures for protecting that information. If that means you don’t tell it to an AI program, you just don’t tell it.”

The questions you ask an AI tool such as ChatGPT—often referred to as prompts—also influence the outcomes you get. “It’s one of those things where if you don’t give it the right information up front, it will struggle to come up with anything that makes creative sense,” says CONRIC’s Mohs. “It’s not a creative tool; it’s a functional tool. It’s not going to write a novel for you.”

The content produced by ChatGPT and other tools raises questions about intellectual property and copyright issues. “Your employees can prompt AI to do something like create content for a blog site, but who owns the output?” says Nieds. “Who owns the content that the AI creates?

“And it can be problematic, because AI doesn’t think about whether or not its output might infringe on someone else’s copyright,” he continues. “You can tell AI, ‘Write me a story about a white whale,’ and the next thing you know it spits out Moby Dick. You have to be careful that the output doesn’t infringe on someone else’s rights.”

Ethics also come into play, since AI makes it easy to create and spread misinformation. “You can get photorealistic images that never actually happened,” says Mohs. “That’s where the companies have to take the necessary steps—and we as a society have to take the necessary steps—to use the tools responsibly.”

“People know and understand that you feed data into a machine and the machine produces a result,” says FGCU’s Ruehle. “But people don’t necessarily understand how the machine arrived at the result. … Companies need to develop an understanding about how the machines produce this result, and they need to be transparent about it.”

The bottom line: Don’t just blindly rush into using AI without putting some thought into it. “It’s a brand-new thing and we don’t understand a lot about how it works,” says Nieds. “There are quirks to it that are going to have to work out in the legal system, and the legal system is always slower than reality. You should just look at it as another business tool, and if you’re going to implement it, use common sense.”

The power of people

A big looming question is whether—or to what extent—AI will replace jobs currently held by humans. Right now, some of the weaknesses of AI mean that humans still need to be involved.

“At this point, the main reason why AI isn’t going to replace much in the way of jobs is that it’s not sophisticated enough to know if it did a good job,” says Vectra Digital’s Ambs. “It doesn’t know if what it told you is true or accurate.”

In fact, AI feeds users incorrect information often enough that there’s a term for it—hallucination. FGCU’s Ruehle, for example, asked ChatGPT to write a short professional bio for her. There’s lots of accurate info about her online, but it still managed to include that she has a computer science degree from Stanford—which she does not have.

“Sometimes it gets it wrong,” she says. “You need to verify any facts and figures to make sure that they’re correct, and that’s a value we can add as humans.”

And while AI tools are good at spitting out information, they can’t yet replicate the kind of personality-filled or heart-tugging copy that a human can. “It produces something that looks OK, but it has some problems,” says Ruehle. “It doesn’t have human emotion or emotional intelligence. For any piece of writing that has a persuasive quality, like a sales document or a proposal, ChatGPT is going to produce results that are very bland. It doesn’t have the emotional element; that’s where we, as humans, distinguish ourselves.”

Naples-based Wilson Creative Group has been using ChatGPT for SEO research and to generate ideas and copy. The company embraces the efficiencies and competitive advantages it can provide, but it realizes where the limitations lie.

“It takes a human to know the client,” says Ryan Hall, the company’s creative director. “AI can try to know our clients, but at the end of the day, we’re the experts. … It’s really the idea generator; it’s not the end-all be-all.”

So, will AI eliminate jobs down the road? The jury is still out. IBM CEO Arvind Krishna got people’s attention when he said in an interview with Bloomberg that the company will slow or suspend hiring for roles that could be replaced by AI. His assessment that 30% of back-office positions could be automated would affect nearly 8,000 jobs over a five-year stretch.

Others don’t see AI as completely taking over human-held jobs, but instead changing the way we all work. “It’s not going to totally replace people,” says Mohs. “Photoshop never replaced any designers; Word hasn’t replaced writers. But it’s going to replace tools. It’s going to evolve to the point where we’re not necessarily going to need certain tools and certain services. … That’s just the nature of the beast. As technology advances, folks are going to adjust and use these new tools, and the older tools that are less useful are going to become outdated.”

“Remember when the internet came out and what everyone said?” asks Ambs. “It didn’t replace anyone’s jobs; it just sort of reshuffled some jobs. That’s the way I look at it. I think human beings are adaptive.”

“We all have access to the same information; it’s what you do with the information creatively that will set us apart and help us stand out from the masses as a differentiator,” says Peggy Wilson, CEO of Wilson Creative Group. “It will be survival of the fittest in the end of who can leverage the tools the best to their highest advantage.”

“It is always a concern with each new sort of major step change in technology,” says Suffolk’s Chin. “If you look at previous technological leaps, it doesn’t displace, it shifts. Certain jobs will change. Capabilities that are valued in the past may be less valued, but then new capabilities will be valued. And typically, the new capabilities or the new jobs or the new roles tend to be higher value-add.”

“People that are going to get the jobs and excel in their careers will have the ability to harness and work with AI,” says Ruehle. “They’ll know and understand the strengths of it and know how to harness it, but they’ll still retain the critical thinking. The humanness—that’s the key.”

How to get started

If your company hasn’t started experimenting with AI yet, now’s the time. The first step is taking a look at your business and seeing where the technology could be helpful.

“Bringing AI into your business without understanding what it can do, or not thinking about what it can do in your business, would be like hiring someone without interviewing them first,” says Vectra Digital’s Harrison Ambs.

AI could help automate some of your email communications or be used for calendar scheduling. “It doesn’t have to be this revolutionary thing,” says Ambs. “It can be something that sort of affects the margins of your day. What are the things that you’re annoyed with that you have to deal with over and over again?”

In addition to its content- and idea-generating capabilities, AI can also be used for research, summarizing information and outlining pieces of written communication. “It’s a tool,” says FGCU’s Chrissann R. Ruehle. “But the quality of your output is going to be much higher than ChatGPT will ever produce, trust me on that. Your humaneness is always going to produce better, higher-quality writing, but ChatGPT can be a writing partner.”

“It’s a time saver, a money saver and a way for you to learn and to distill information so much faster,” says VeraData’s Peterman. “I don’t think people really appreciate how fast they can learn things and how fast they can automate things.”

But make sure amazement doesn’t replace education, caution and an understanding of AI’s pros and cons. “I think it’s incumbent on every business to ask the right questions when it starts to use it,” says Chin. “And inform itself of what the technology can do and what it can’t do.”

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