Jan. 27—Artificial intelligence sounds like something being developed in top secrecy in a Silicon Valley lab or on the campus of a high-tech research university.
But a study by the Portland-based Roux Institute of Northeastern University has found that AI is already at work in Maine, and gaining a firm grip in the corporate and education world here.
One example: Maine hospitals are developing AI systems that will take over the chore of delivering medications and treatments to patients, while also helping to detect cancer or alerting cardiologists when they should intervene to prevent a heart attack.
Scientists at Colby College are using artificial intelligence to scan billions of galaxies photographed by the James Webb Space Telescope to find some of the oldest clusters of stars in the universe. And Norway Savings Bank is using AI-based devices and computers to automate repetitive tasks while also safeguarding customers’ sensitive financial data.
That last example illustrates the approach of many Maine businesses and institutions to AI, said Usama Fayyad, executive director of the Institute for Experiential AI at Northeastern University. Norway Savings is deliberately drawing lines around the reach of AI into its customer accounts, but is also eager to explore the technology’s potential.
Fayyad said he understands those concerns — the institute encourages potential users of AI to do their research but continue to move ahead.
“I think we could be doing a whole lot more,” Fayyad told about 400 people at a Roux Institute conference on AI in Portland on Friday.
Greater acceptance, Fayyad said, lies in demystifying AI.
At its simplest, artificial intelligence is about using computers to perform tasks that typically require a level of human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making and language translation. But there are limits to what the computers can do, he said.
“Many think there’s a kind of black magic to making AI work,” he said. “There’s not.”
AI is commonly thought of as a tool for high-tech industries, but the Roux Institute’s study found it is playing a role in Maine’s heritage industries as well.
For instance, AI is used to help analyze data on fish stocks in the Gulf of Maine and has been used to help predict red tide or other algae blooms that threaten the shellfish industry. Researchers are also trying to determine if AI abilities such as image recognition and data visualization will allow regulators to use technology to replace human observers on fishing vessels in federal waters off Maine.
AI can even be used to identify the tissue structure of a day’s catch, so fish aren’t mislabeled for consumers.
AI is becoming an important tool in forestry as well. AI is behind a network of wireless sensors operated by the University of Maine. Among other data the sensors collect — and AI analyzes — is a measure of soil moisture, a key factor in tree growth. That helps scientists determine optimal times for harvesting trees in remote areas of Maine’s vast forests. And AI programs can also look for signs of invasive insect species that threaten the health of the forests.
AI is also being used to help Maine building owners optimize electricity storage from rooftop solar panels. Artificial intelligence helps determine when a building’s air conditioning or heat pumps should run and when the system should be keyed to storing electricity for later use.
And, the Roux Institute report said, AI is even a tool that can help human manufacturing become more efficient. Even if the process is primarily human-driven, the report said, AI can suggest changes to the process that will shorten lead times, improve production capacities and make material deliveries more efficient.
Unlocking the promise of AI, Fayyad said, will require that more attention is paid to how it is being rolled out in Maine.
The Roux Institute’s report, he said, can help give analysts a handle on Maine’s starting point.
“Now we need to understand how the journey will progress,” he said.