This new group wants to make Pittsburgh a leader in using AI for good

First up is joining a global network of cities leading the conversation about AI.

MJ Slaby / the incline
MJ Slaby

At first, artificial intelligence can be mystifying.

“It’s not a magical black box,” said Kenny Chen, innovation director at Ascender. AI is really about ways to collect, store and manipulate data, using algorithms to find patterns in that data and using the output. “It’s math.”

Work and research in AI are happening across Pittsburgh from startups to universities like Carnegie Mellon and Pitt to companies like Bosch, which opened a center for AI this summer, and Google, which is currently taking submissions for its AI impact challenge.

But it can be easy for those researchers and entrepreneurs to stay in their silos, Chen said, adding there is a knowledge gap when it comes to understand AI in the broader Pittsburgh community. So in an effort to increase that understanding and build a network that puts Pittsburgh on the map for AI, a new organization will soon launch in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh AI is part of a larger organization called City.AI, which is based in Brussels and focuses on the democratic use of AI and is in more than 60 cities around the world, Chen said. Joining City.AI gives Pittsburgh access to a global network and allows ambassadors from Pittsburgh to attend a world summit.

Pittsburgh AI will respond to local needs and be a place to build connections. Think of it as Pittsburgh Robotics Network or Code and Supply, but for AI.

“AI is a really powerful tool, and humans can use it to help make our lives better and solve many complex problems to help shape solutions, and Pittsburgh is on the forefront,” said Ellie Gordon, CEO and co-founder of Behaivior, which created a wearable that senses when the wearer is at risk for opioid relapse.

Meet Pittsburgh AI

Earlier this week, the new Pittsburgh AI organization had a pre-launch event at Google in East Liberty. The actual launch will have more community input, Chen said, adding that the next steps are to organize in early 2019 and launch in spring.

Chen dove into the topic of AI about two years ago as part of his role at Ascender, which focuses on entrepreneurs and ecosystems. This was a gap where Ascender could make a difference, Chen said. And that’s why he wants to hand over the reins of Pittsburgh AI — so those in the field can shape what the group does.

Having a global network is one of the reasons that Elizabeth LaRue said joining Pittsburgh AI is appealing to her. The CEO of Hera Global Tech, LaRue leads a team that’s working on a band-aid-like patch that senses when the person wearing it is in distress and uses Bluetooth to send a text message to that person’s friends or family. She was one of several startup leaders that spoke at the pre-launch event.

An organization helps to bring people working in the same space together in a collaborative instead of competitive way, Chen added.

Tanner, vice president of engineering at CleanRobotics, a startup that created a TrashBot, a trash can that uses machine learning to sort recycling from trash, agreed that collaboration helps everyone.

“If you’re not willing to reach out and collaborate, you’re looking to fail,” he said, adding that networks allow startup teams to ask questions and find out who has had similar challenges.

AI for good

High on the priority list for Pittsburgh AI is outlining the ethical use of AI, Chen said. It can be a declaration or a strategic plan or a values document, he said, adding that the type of document can vary as long as it outlines Pittsburgh’s goals.

The city as a whole needs to come together to figure out how it will be a part of and guide the global discourse on responsible AI to solve major problems, he said.  “AI really opens up an exciting opportunity, but with a lot of risks and challenges.”

“This movement is happening and happening quickly,” Chen added.

The idea of AI for good is something that companies around the world are discussing and the United Nations has an entire platform on, he said, adding that one area he’s especially interested in the geopolitical impact as tensions rise between AI superpowers in China and in the West.

And the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE is looking for leaders of how artificial intelligence can solve big problems and be used for good. The multi-year contest is down to 30 finalists, including three from Pittsburgh:

  • Behaivior — AI via wearables to help treat addiction and prevent relapse
  • CleanRobotics — Trash cans that sort trash and recycling on their own
  • Marinus Analytics — AI and data to finding and investigating sex trafficking activities

Using AI for good has been part of the Behaivior mission from the beginning, said one of the founders Ryan O’Shea. He added that while pop culture can make AI sound scary, AI can be a force for good in the world. Yet there are always valid concerns about safety and privacy.

And while AI isn’t always necessary to meet a goal, it does help make things more efficient and affordable, Cook pointed out.

“If you want to do anything better, use AI,” he said.