These eight Pittsburgh companies are using artificial intelligence to change the world — for good

You can meet the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE competitors on Friday.

Jared Wickerham/ For The Incline
MJ Slaby

From a trash can that sorts trash and recycling on its own to a wearable device that helps treat drug addiction and more, eight Pittsburgh companies entered an international contest to find how artificial intelligence can solve big problems and be used for good.

On Friday, about 15 teams in that competition — the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE —will meet at Ascender in East Liberty. Nearly 150 teams are competing from around the world. Eight of those teams are from the Pittsburgh area.

Ascender was designated a hub for training, networking and more during the contest which ends in 2020, said Kenny Chen, program director for the space and an XPRIZE ambassador. Teams from across the East Coast and central United States will spend Friday at Ascender in workshops focused on XPRIZE, followed by a public reception from 6 to 9 p.m. (Get your tickets here.) The event includes presentations and Q&As with the teams, networking and an overview of the idea of using AI for good.

So what is AI for good? Chen, who recently attended a global summit on the subject in Geneva, described it as having three elements:

  • Public perception. There is a lot of fear around AI and the ideas of having a “robot overlord,” like in movies, Chen said. But robot overlords are the least of concerns for people who work in AI, he said, adding that what they are doing with technology is much different and more varied.
  • Minimizing risk. However, it’s important to get out ahead of possible risks that come with AI, Chen said. Examples include public safety policies around self-driving vehicles and international bans of AI weapons.
  • Changing the world. This is the most exciting part, Chen said. He said AI has the potential to solve some of the biggest challenges in education, communications and health care through research and public-private partnerships. “We’re still in the very early stages of that being actionable [but it’s important to] sow the seeds earlier rather than later,” he said.

Chen said Ascender has been working with XPRIZE since the fall, even hosting an AI hackathon which resulted in several teams that are now competing. The contest tackles the hard problems and pushes tech in a positive direction, he said. And Chen said it seemed like a fit for Pittsburgh.

After all, the city is home to multiple self-driving car companies, including the self-driving Uber Volvos that Pittsburghers can ride in. CMU is known for it’s decades of AI work including Libratus, the AI that beats humans at Heads-Up No-Limit Texas Hold’em and the newly-formed hub that brings together students and faculty in different fields working on AI. There’s also a strong connection between AI and the robotics expertise in Pittsburgh, Chen said. Plus, he said healthcare is going to be the No. 1 or No. 2 field where AI has the most potential.

“AI is going to be as impactful as the internet or radio or electricity in some ways,” Chen said.

Meet the teams

Most of the eight teams from the Pittsburgh area are expected to attend Friday, according to Chen. Here’s an overview of what each does:

  • Algoborg — An AI platform for cancer imaging and analysis
  • BehAIvior — AI via wearables to help treat addiction and prevent relapse
  • Choitek — Robots teach and inspire students to enter STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields
  • CleanRobotics — Trash cans that sort trash and recycling on their own
  • Expii — AI that teaches through crowdsourcing lessons and education algorithms
  • Marinus Analytics — AI and data to finding and investigating sex trafficking activities
  • SCAD AI — AI that helps with work/life balance
  • UPMC Enterprises — AI to help people with cognitive degenerative disorders