Maine university system held its first artificial intelligence conference at the University of Southern Maine in Portland Friday, bringing together leaders in business, government and academia to discuss the technology. From left, Moderator, John Harrington – co-founder and chief product officer of HighByte, Brien Flewelling PhD, director of strategic program development at Exoanalytics, Mark Maybury PhD, vice president of commercialization at Lockheed Martin, Cliona Molony PhD, chief data officer and head of data science at IDEXX, Richard “Dick” Wilkins, principal technology liaison for phoenix technologies.  Sara Coughlin/Staff Writer

As the use of artificial intelligence grows, University of Maine officials want to make sure the state’s businesses know how they can benefit from it. They also want to help state lawmakers develop policies that ensure Maine and its people remain competitive and successful.

On Friday, the university system held its first artificial intelligence, or AI, conference at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, bringing together leaders in business, government and academia to discuss the technology.

Over 100 people turned out for panel discussions with speakers from IDEXX, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Phoenix Technologies, Exoanalytics, Lockheed Martin, HighByte and Covetrus, as well as faculty from UMaine, USM, the University of Richmond School of Law and the Roux Institute.

Ali Abedi, who helped organize the event and is the chair of the university system’s AI initiative, said one of the biggest goals was to help Maine’s businesses know how they can use AI, including by partnering with the University of Maine. Big corporations should not be the only ones who can leverage its benefits, he said.

“We want to have access to this tool – same as access to computers and access to internet and access to water and electricity – be democratized for everybody who wants to use it, because I think many people are not (using it) out there, or they don’t have the capital to do that,” said Abedi, who is an associate vice president for research at the University of Maine at Orono. 

The university system has used and developed artificial intelligence for a range of purposes, from building a chess-playing robotic arm in the 1980s to optimizing paper-making machines and, in 2016, building a system that listens for air leaks in the International Space Station. The university system launched its Artificial Intelligence Initiative in 2019,  hosting a series of webinars that attracted the attention of over 2,000 people looking to learn about and discuss AI, Abedi said. Friday’s event was born out of the overwhelming interest in the online discussions.

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At the conference, professors presented their research on how to improve accuracy, fairness and comprehensibility in AI models, as well as how they are using AI in the classroom. Moderator Ashanthi Maxworth, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at USM, noted that the panelists’ research was important in demonstrating that AI goes far beyond ChatGPT and is a complex topic with a vast array of applications that researchers have been working on for decades.

During the industry panel, speakers discussed how their own companies are utilizing AI technology, problems with current AI models, legality of data usage in AI and applications of AI internally in businesses to improve efficiency, accuracy and innovation. Mark Maybury, vice president of commercialization at the aerospace company Lockheed Martin, compared this point in time – as artificial intelligence technology becomes more powerful – to the discovery of fire. Fire was essential in progressing civilization to new levels but also brought the potential to burn, causing harm and destruction, he said.

“(AI technologies) are not going to reduce jobs. They’re going to multiply jobs,” Maybury said during the panel. “We have hard science of past innovations to show. So we need better education, better training. That’s another area where you could focus on as a business.”

Throughout the conference, speakers also discussed legal issues surrounding AI including privacy and cybersecurity, sourcing of data and regulations that can be applied to govern the use and development of AI. Abedi said he hoped attendees from the Maine state government and other organizations could learn about the needs of local businesses, colleges and universities when it comes to preparing people to use AI in the workforce as well as the need for laws around AI.

Leo Waterston, an attendee and program director at FocusMaine, said the conference helped him understand how his organization and the state of Maine can develop the workforce as AI becomes more prevalent in business.

“One of the reasons I’m here is to see the state of AI in Maine and where the field is headed here and also what assets are in our state as it relates to AI and data science,” Waterston said. “I’m really encouraged to see a growing cluster there, and I think it’s a great thing for the state and potentially for the state’s economy.”

Organizers plan to make the conference into an annual event held at campuses across the state.

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