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West Virginia getting ahead of the curve with Artificial Intelligence

1/28/2024

Clarksburg, W.Va. – Grocery bagging, which has long been a first job of many teenagers, has already begun to decline at chain retail stores due to the prevalence of artificial intelligence-supported self-checkout machines.

However, experts say it’s still too early to declare what industries will be most affected.

All retail businesses are likely to experience “rapid growth in this area,” and the issue is especially relevant for West Virginia as “large numbers of West Virginians work in the retail sector,” said West Virginia Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts.

Although the advancement of AI will “indeed eliminate jobs in the short run, technological change that eliminates jobs like this has been happening for centuries,” said John Deskins, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research in West Virginia University’s John Chambers College of Business and Economics.

“It is common for technological change like this to displace existing workers. For example, 200 years ago about 90% of the people working in this country were working in agriculture, and now it is less than 5% after technological advancement,” Deskins said.

However, it’s important to note that individuals who lost their jobs due to advancements in agricultural technology were not unemployed long and eventually moved into new industries, he said.

“This change freed those people up to work in other areas. This kind of shift can cause harm in the short run as people have to transition to new work, but in the long run it is a key driver of our growing prosperity,” Deskins said.

“Many West Virginia employers are or will connect to the AI issue as it relates to their business, [and] anyone working or relying on the sorting and transportation of goods or services [has] already [been] touched by this issue,” Roberts said.

However, AI is too new and too broad of a term to know how many jobs it might eventually replace, Deskins said.

To adapt to this change in technology, experts say West Virginia’s universities need to embrace change and prepare students for the future.

“[The] computer science programs in our state should examine opportunities in AI and make sure that their curricula are up to date,” Deskins said.

“Our universities are connected to this space by ongoing technological research. The same is true for many of our larger employers, especially those involved in research and production,” Roberts said.

Providing education and career training opportunities focused specifically on engineering and computer science will be essential for preparing West Virginia workers to adapt to this change in technology, experts agreed.

Local businesses have already seen a gradual shift in business operations being affected by AI, and more changes will come as the field advances.

“Business adapts rapidly to changing circumstances, and employers are and will adapt to the opportunities and challenges brought by AI,” Roberts said.

“We also believe AI will bring new learning opportunities and new skill set availability for those who are or will be in the workforce,” Roberts said.

In addition to businesses embracing the changes brought on by AI advancement, representatives of the West Virginia House of Delegates also have begun to seek out ways to utilize AI to better maintain roadway infrastructure that is critical to the success of business in the state.

A pilot program that will utilize cameras, artificial intelligence, GPS, the remote sensing method of Lidar and other tools to observe and assess the rural and urban roadways of Monongalia and Preston counties was legislated by state delegates last June.

Monongalia and Preston counties were chosen for the pilot program because their population densities are representative of the state as a whole: Dense population center near the university and sparse rural communities in the countryside. Having this range of data early will help to develop the program as it ages, said West Virginia House Bill 3412 co-sponsor Del. Clay Riley, R-Harrison.

No timeframe exists for when the program might expand as legislators still need to see what results come from the pilot program.

However, this is not the first introduction of the technology in West Virginia.

West Virginia University first began teaching aspects of artificial intelligence in 1981, after receiving a grant for $2 million, said WVU Raymond J. Lane Professor and Chairperson for the Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering Anurag Srivastava.

Three years later AI software was applied to local coal mines, Srivastava said.

WVU now teaches 10 courses in AI and the number is increasing as there are an increasing number of professors with expertise and students with interest, Srivastava said.

Next year, a master’s degree in AI will be available through Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funding.

“AI is everywhere now,” Srivastava said.

The introduction of ChatGPT has influenced the curriculum, but there is not a course specifically about building large language models, Srivastava said.

Some students have customized or “finely tuned” ChatGPT and other large language models as a project, but it is not a requirement of any of the courses, Srivastava said.

Srivastava said it’s too early to say which industries may be most impacted, as AI is not mature enough yet. But he did say that jobs that have repeated tasks are more likely to be affected than those that require innovation and critical thinking.

With software coding, for instance, AI can easily replicate the code of previously developed systems, but it cannot easily design new programs, Srivastava said.

Because humans are able to complete trial and error tests and adapt to the changing circumstances of a customer’s requirements, they are more suited to building new systems, he said.

WVU does not yet have a plan to replace any of its employees with AI, but Srivastava said it would be a good idea to develop new assessment strategies as more students utilize large language models such as ChatGPT to help them with their schoolwork.

“The way we asses performance needs to change to help keep students from using ChatGPT. We should design assessments [to] test a student’s critical thinking. And it needs to be changed in all universities,” Srivastava said.

 

Story by Damion Phillips, WV News

 

 

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