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Podcast: Artificial Intelligence History — Mythology to Pandemic

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Podcast with Dr. Wanda Curlee
Program Director, School of Business, American Public University

and Dr. Shelley Pumphrey
Faculty Member, School of Business

Humans have been intrigued by artificial intelligence as far back as Greek mythology. In this podcast, APU program director Dr. Wanda Curlee talks to business professor Dr. Shelley Pumphrey about the history of artificial intelligence (AI) and the vast potential of the technology.

Start a management degree at American Public University.

Learn about applications of artificial intelligence in education to customize learning tools for students, help teachers understand where students need more one-on-one interaction, and how AI can enhance the relationship between students and teachers. Also, learn how AI has the potential to change business, healthcare, and other industries particularly during COVID-19 and how the future application of AI is only limited by the creativity of entrepreneurs.

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Read the Transcript:

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Welcome to the podcast, Innovations in the Workplace. I’m your host, Wanda Curlee.

Today, we are going to be chatting about artificial intelligence history, mythology to pandemic. My guest is Dr. Shelley Pumphrey, who is a professor at American Public University. She has researched artificial intelligence for several years. Shelley, welcome to Innovations in the Workplace, and thank you for joining me.

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: Thank you, Dr. Curlee. It’s a pleasure to be here, especially to talk about my favorite subject.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Great. I’m glad to hear that. So, Shelley, some, when they think about AI, they picture the “Terminator,” or Data on “Star Trek,” or the computer on “Star Trek” that talks back to you. How do you envision AI? Do you think we will ever have something similar to the “Terminator” or Data?

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: Yes. Many think of AI as it’s portrayed in the movies and books. I think “HAL 9000” in “A Space Odyssey” was one of the very first exposure some had to AI and it scared them thinking that computers were going to take over humankind.

Data from “Star Trek” was a kinder android. He even sacrificed himself to save the crew. I’d like to think of AI as something we use to enhance our work or quality of life, maybe more like Data than “HAL” or the “Terminator.”

Dr. Wanda Curlee: So some believe that AI actually started with aliens landed on earth while we were still in caves, and even with the Egyptians and the Incas. What are your thoughts?

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: Well, I’ll leave the study of aliens to others, but one of the earliest ideas of AI dates back to 750 B.C. where Greek mythology speaks of Talos — a giant, bronze robot who was made to protect the island of Crete.

And many of us remember the story of Pandora’s box. Pandora was an artificial woman sent to punish humans for the discovery of fire.

What I find fascinating about all of these — and they go back, you can find many, many examples — is that there’s evidence of AI that goes back to the earliest records of humankind. Humans throughout history have been intrigued by how we think and how we respond to things and have wanted to try to recreate that. Even Frankenstein was an attempt to create an artificial being.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Wow. That’s absolutely amazing. It makes you wonder what humans were thinking about and how they even got those ideas to come up with a robot back in those days.

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: The human mind is incredible.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yes, it is. And while I think that many think that AI is going to mimic the human mind, I don’t think it’ll ever quite get there. But that’s my personal opinion.

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: I’m with you. There’s lots of ideas and maybe some misconceptions about AI, but the fact that we think about it — and how innovative we can be and creative we can be — just means that there’s unlimited possibilities for AI.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yes, I would agree. So, are there any AI myths you would like to debunk? Any that you would like to start?

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: Well, I don’t know that I’ll start any, but let me focus on education as an example because that’s where one of my passions is. There’s been a myth around for a long time, even back when online education was just starting to take off, that AI would replace the professor or the teacher in the classroom.

I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think AI will provide more opportunities for more one-on-one and customized relationships between teachers and students.

I even had an opportunity during this pandemic to observe school-age kids learn through AI. Many schools had to be creative in how they could continue to teach students while they were at home. So what I saw was that they used AI as a learning tool the kids even had fun with, because it was more like games and most of the activities, they would be customized for each student.

So you would start out with a task and depending on how the student reacted to that task, if they’ve got information correct or not, it was very positive in its approach. And it would develop a learning path for the student, based on how the student reacted to either scenarios or math problems, whatever.

So it was able to customize different opportunities for the students to learn. For the faculty, the teacher, that gave them an opportunity to see where maybe individual students needed some one-on-one interaction, and they were able to reach out to these students where they may not have if they had a classroom of 20 or 25 students.

S0 now they could interact with a student more one-on-one and customize exactly what that student needed. It really provided an opportunity to meet the student’s needs, individual students’ needs.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Wow, that’s absolutely amazing. I think maybe I would be better in math had that happened with me. I didn’t have very good math teachers, unfortunately.

But let’s look at that a little bit in education. So we see how it helps the student, but how can it help the teacher, maybe on online or even in face-to-face?

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: Well, again, it’s an opportunity to customize. Now the teacher, for example, maybe uses an automatically graded test, then they can see where certain students, individual students may need some extra hands-on sort of activities. They can design that. They can reach out.

Teaching, as I’m sure you’re aware, is really creating that relationship, that trust between the faculty, the professor, the teacher, and the student, and when you can interact with the student more one-on-one. I think that relationship builds much faster and the student learns faster, and I think using AI in some of these areas where automatic grading or some of the scenarios and activities and simulators, then the faculty member has more time to reach out and spend time with each individual student.

And from a faculty member’s perspective, my own perspective, that’s a more rewarding experience for me too because you get to see the student actually learn. And you just feel like you’ve accomplished something.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah. It sounds like it would also help with developing critical thinking skills that students many times lack. I won’t say all students because there are some that have great critical thinking skills, but with AI, it could push students to develop those skills more quickly or at their own pace.

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: I agree. I think it does. To me, AI just offers many opportunities, and I think we’ve only just scratched the surface of it.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah. I would agree. You and I are both online professors. So what do you think about chatbots in the classroom, especially in an online environment? Do you think that would be advantageous or disadvantageous?

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: You know, it depends on how it’s used. Just with any technology, if you use it correctly, if you use it in a positive way, it can enhance the experience. If you’re not fully engaged, you provide, or the instructor, for example, provides very short responses, doesn’t really get into it, the student can feel that.

They get a sense of whether or not the professor cares or the teacher cares, and that chatbots is a way to connect if we use it right and we demonstrate that we’re really interested in what the other individual has to say. We seek more to understand from their perspective, and then we can respond to that in a way that makes it more pleasurable and more productive for them.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah. I totally agree with that. That’s a wonderful perspective. So how do you like to define AI? We’ve seen it kind of what you said from an education perspective, but in the broad sense, how would you like to define it as?

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: Well, I think there are many definitions for AI, and I guess it was John McCarthy who actually used or invented the term AI back in the early ‘50s. The commonality that I see in all these definitions is this broad idea that AI is the ability to take technology, for technology to take on those human characteristics where we interpret it as thinking and feeling and reacting. I think all of those definitions have that in common.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Oh yeah. They do have a lot of definitions out there, but you’re right. That is the common sense from that. And there sure are a lot of different words for AI.

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: Yes, there are.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yes. So why is AI good for humanity or is it?

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: I think it is. I think there are many positive opportunities for AI. I can only imagine what the future of healthcare might be like as AI is applied, and we see more and more innovations.

It offers more training opportunities for the workplace, for employees to expand their skills. And, obviously, it takes some products faster to market. Those are just a few ideas of how humanity can benefit from AI.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah, it is. It is amazing what AI can do for us. And, like you said, I can’t imagine what my children and my grandchildren will see in the future, 10 years, 20 years from now.

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: Yes.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah. It’s just amazing. So how is AI helping us with the pandemic?

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: Well, it certainly helped keep students on track during this pandemic period, may have been a little bit of a transition, a shift for some to get used to, but it was able to keep them moving, and moving forward. As I mentioned before, it’s also a good way to use games to keep them interested.

Through AI, we can gather more data and do more data modeling faster too, and that’s certainly been beneficial during the pandemic. As you know, modeling takes a lot of information and tries to order it and make sense out of it, and AI can help us do that much faster than we humans can.

There’s been very little experience with the virus before now. We had no idea what to expect with this. So gathering that information quickly and trying to make sense of it, providing different scenarios, has definitely been useful during this pandemic.

It’s also helped many who have worked in the physical workplace transition to working from home and being more remote. And I think that that’s going to open some opportunities for businesses and individuals in the future, too.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Oh, absolutely. I think many companies thought that their employees had to be in the workplace to get work done. And I think they’ve found out that that’s not quite true.

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: I agree.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: So let’s continue a little bit on that. The pandemic, you talked about there’s a lot of data and AI does very good with data and it would have taken many, many, probably hundreds of people to put all that data together if they could have even put that data together. Are there other areas, do you think, that AI might be helping with the pandemic besides with data?

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: I think that it’s helped us to communicate. Those who have not worked remotely in the past, they could get online, learn how to use technology faster through the use of AI. They’ve been able to get answers quicker. I’ve noticed many companies have developed different types of training modules to help their employees get more experience in an online environment, so they’ve been able to keep moving forward and being productive.

Also, retail has really taken off in this pandemic. People who are going online and finding different ways to find information, different ways to purchase products that they couldn’t before, and from the retailers’ perspective, different ways to present products that they may not have been able to before. So I think it’s a good bit of creativity going on, and I think we’re going to see that continue even after the pandemic.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah, those retail establishments that got creative in how they show their product seems to have survived better. For example, I buy my groceries online and then go pick it up in front of the store. I couldn’t do that before the pandemic.

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: Same thing with restaurants and carry-outs, yeah.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Right, right. And AI has something to do with that because when I go and do my grocery shopping, it now says, “Do you want to buy this again?” or “Would you like to buy more?” or “Here’s a similar product.”

So AI is all round us. Besides the pandemic, we talked a little bit about AI helping people. How do you see it helping in other areas besides education and maybe retail?

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: Well, I think it’s helped to reduce human errors in the workplace. Gathering data and trying to use that data to develop knowledge, we have less opportunities or less potential, I think, for errors to misinterpret that.

It also can take some of the risks out of things that maybe we don’t want humans to be exposed to. For example, way back in time — not all that far back — but if you look at Chernobyl, we didn’t have technology then that could have gone in and evaluated the situation right after the accident. We could have been much faster with the technology we have today, and AI could have played a role in that situation that would have minimized risks to humans.

We can explore things like outer space and even the deeper recesses of the ocean using AI and robotics that maybe we don’t want to put humans quite in that position of risk.

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: It’s also available 24/7. There’s no downtime. This makes data and information easier to get to. For those who do work remotely, they also have children at home and they’re trying to balance doing homeschooling, then maybe they can work different hours and get their work done because some of the technology is available 24/7.

We could probably make faster healthcare decisions if we have data and can evaluate it quicker. It’s just the opportunities and innovations, I think, just are limited by our creativity.

I think entrepreneurs have a wide-open space for them in the near future and how they’re going to handle this during and after the pandemic. It’ll be interesting to see the new entrepreneurs that develop through this.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yes, it absolutely will be because what I’m seeing when I do my research in AI, it’s just exploding right now. And, in fact, I was just reading an article that said that this pandemic was found by an AI. It predicted that we would have the pandemic within a month.

Now, it didn’t name the pandemic. It didn’t know what the pandemic was, but it said we were going to have a pandemic.

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: Wow.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: And it was accurate within a month. So that’s amazing to me. And, again, it was done by a couple of entrepreneurs out there that just were working on an AI system.

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: That’s great.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: So I think we will see AI all over the place.

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: I agree.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: More so than we see it now. So AI is a type of technology. Many people don’t realize that it’s ones and zeros that has to be coded. It has to be taught to learn.

And with that comes a little bit of ethics because ethics is not universal, and ethics is sometimes different between person to person, culture to culture. So how do we monitor the ethics? And if we don’t, is humanity at risk?

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: That is an interesting question with many layers. There are many levels, as you know, related to ethics, and you mentioned culture, what we’ve been taught growing up, country to country. We could even go back to the HAL 9000 and how technology or tools of any kind can be used as good or not so good. It really depends on the people using it.

So what kind of safeguards can we put in place that protects things like intellectual property? Who owns the code? That’s a good question.

And how do we protect the code? How do we protect the people using it? How do we protect an organization against a disgruntled employee who maybe was a coder?

These are things that we’re going to have to face and find answers to. I think this is what we’re looking forward to in the future.

But I think like any innovation, whether it’s technology or something else, we need to put safeguards in place and we have to determine who gets to access it, what rights do they have when they access the codes, for example, who uses the technology, and how we use it. Those are all things that are still very much up in the air and have to be discussed, investigated, and maybe some trial and error.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah. I think there’s going to be a lot of trial and error because, as you said, who’s looking over the shoulder of the coder or even who knows what kind of ethics he’s putting in there?

They do say that AI should never harm humans, but then you have the military application or other applications out there that may have to harm a human. So how do you make sure it only harms — or I hate to say this, the correct human — because it’s never good to harm a human, but there are situations, like with autonomous vehicles, if they have to choose between killing the driver or killing a pedestrian, what do they do?

So it will be interesting to see how that evolves and especially, to see if, for example, a car that’s maybe a self-driving car coded for Japan is different than a self-driving car for the United States because, culturally, Japanese admire the elderly over youth and we’re just the opposite in the United States. So, it will be interesting. Do you flip a switch and say, “Now we’re using Eastern ethics or…”

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: Yeah. Do we use a global perspective or do we use a more regional? It’s a question that will have to be evaluated.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Right. And who’s liable if AI goes wrong? What if your AI crashes your system in your retail industry, and now you’ve lost all this money? Who’s liable for that?

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: Yeah. It’ll be interesting to see what the insurance industry does.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yes, it be. And I’m sure they’re using AI as well.

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: I can’t think of any industry or anything that touches us that couldn’t eventually, if not already, have some type of AI component in it.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah. Look at our laptops.

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: Yes.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: People don’t think about AI in your laptop, but it’s there. It’s correcting your documents. If you have Word, the little squiggly lines under the different words, that’s AI helping you out and it learns.

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: I think this is a really exciting time. I started — I’m going to show my age — I started in the business world before there were computers on every desk. The computer was in this big, huge room where people wore white coats and they kept it really cold, and the idea of even having a laptop for everyone or a smartphone was just crazy.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah. I’m going to show my age too, because yes, I remember mimeograph machines at school, punch cards to tell the computer what you needed done. Yes. But again, that was a style of AI too because that computer learned from that as well.

So to me, AI is maybe in the toddler phase. Would you agree with that?

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: Oh, yes. I think we are just at the tip of the iceberg. I think there’s so much more ahead of us.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Oh, absolutely. So, if you had a crystal ball, how will AI change maybe in five, 10 or even 15 years?

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: I think it’s really [a] very open field. It’s a blank page, almost. I wish that I had the entrepreneurial skills that many do, because I think they’re going to see various opportunities that maybe I can’t yet. But I think as AI continues to evolve, we’re going to begin to see regulations and policies related to protecting the technologies and those who are involved.

I think those things are going to expand over the next five to 10 years. And I think we’ll see AI place a more personal role in things like protecting individuals, in education, and especially in the healthcare industry.

I can’t even imagine what AI might do for folks like paraplegics, how they might have opportunities in the future that they don’t have today. I think it’s just a wide-open space. It’s the new Wild West.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: That’s a good analogy there. The Wild West for AI. Yeah, I agree. I think healthcare will go by leaps and bounds.

Who knows? We might find a cure for cancer within the next five, 10, 15 years, and I mean all cancers. We might help paraplegics and quadriplegics to walk again and move again. So, to me, that’s just so exciting for humanity.

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: I agree.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah. So, Shelley, thank you very much for joining me today for this episode of Innovations in the Workplace.

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey: Thank you. I enjoyed our discussion.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: And thank you to our listeners for joining us. You can learn more about this topic and similar issues in artificial intelligence by reviewing APU’s blogs. Stay well.

About the Speakers

Dr. Wanda Curlee is a Program Director at American Public University. She has over 30 years of consulting and project management experience and has worked at several Fortune 500 companies. Dr. Curlee has a Doctor of Management in Organizational Leadership from the University of Phoenix, a MBA in Technology Management from the University of Phoenix, and a M.A. and a B.A. in Spanish Studies from the University of Kentucky. She has published numerous articles and several books on project management.

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey is an academic and business leader with more than 20 years of teaching experience in technology and business courses at numerous colleges and universities. She served more than 30 years in the energy industry. Dr. Pumphrey earned her Ph.D. in information security and has published in the areas of alternative fuels and information security. 

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