Wicker Chairs Hearing on Artificial Intelligence

Published 7:00 am Thursday, December 21, 2017

By Roger Wicker

What exactly is artificial intelligence, and what does it mean for how we live and work?  That was the topic of discussion at a recent hearing I chaired on “Digital Decision-Making,” held before the Senate subcommittee that oversees Internet and telecommunications issues.

Artificial intelligence, often referred to as AI, might sound straight out of a science fiction book or TV show, but it is becoming an increasingly common, if not instrumental, part of everyday life.  AI is the technology that enables a machine to make a decision based on the data it has collected, such as when a smartphone gives driving directions around congested traffic or an e-mail system detects spam messages.  Social media, online shopping, and preventing credit card fraud all have AI components.  The applications are widespread, and the technology is evolving swiftly, creating a need for conversations to ensure it is being used safely and responsibly.

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The experts who testified at the hearing detailed how AI is being harnessed to improve ways farmers grow crops, doctors treat illnesses, manufacturers produce goods, and teachers give feedback to students.  There are revolutionary, headline-grabbing AI breakthroughs such as self-driving cars, but there are also much more subtle public and private sector advancements in AI that are working to cut costs, boost productivity, and create better lives for Americans.

A lot of that work is being done in Mississippi.  One of the hearing’s witnesses was Dr. Cindy L. Bethel, an associate professor of computer science and engineering at Mississippi State University.  In her testimony, she noted three specific AI projects at the university.  One is using AI research for robots that could help law enforcement respond to dangerous situations.  The robots would collect information about the crime scene before officers have to put themselves in harm’s way.  Another project is focusing on an autonomous transport system for cargo, and a third is developing a robotic therapy dog, which could be used by those who are allergic to pets.

Likewise, for the past two years, the University of Mississippi has held a Tech Summit to engage students, faculty, industry experts, business executives, and policymakers on the future of technology in our state and nation.  The forum reaffirms Mississippi’s reputation as a place for innovation and illustrates the commitment of our universities to help lead the way. Advancements in AI could have a major impact on the careers available to tomorrow’s workforce.  I am a strong advocate of STEM education and authored a bill earlier this year to promote computer science programs.  The field is ripe for young talent, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expecting 1.3 million job openings in computing by 2022.  During the subcommittee hearing, Victoria Espinel, chief executive officer of The Software Alliance, noted that the software industry supports 7,000 jobs and generates more than $800 million in Mississippi.

This is an exciting time for our state, and I look forward to seeing how AI can continue to transform our communities in positive ways.  The possibilities are truly limitless.