Five Really Smart Philadelphians Talk About What AI Can (and Can’t) Do

We ask five really smart local leaders about the capabilities of AI technology (and, for fun, their favorite work of science fiction).

We ask five really smart local leaders about the capabilities of AI technology (and, for fun, their favorite work of science fiction).

The Marketing Maven

Nyron Burke

Photograph courtesy of Lithero

Co-founder and CEO of Lithero

Do you have an aha moment about AI’s capabilities? For all the press, AI is still way behind human intelligence in terms of efficiency. To get AI to do human-like tasks requires massive amounts of data and energy. Humans regularly do the same work with only a few examples to learn from and with very little energy. AI is not a repudiation of human “specialness”; it actually highlights it.

What excites you about AI technology in society? AI is a tool — like electricity or the internet — that can and will be used for both beneficial and harmful purposes. I’m excited by some of the helpful applications to lower costs and improve speed of decision-making in health care. We should anticipate the harmful uses and make sure we discourage people from applying AI in those ways.

What’s the most common misconception about AI? That AI is “conscious” or “thinks.” AI is complex math. Math is powerful, but it does not “feel.” It is not alive and never will be.

What’s your favorite work of science fiction? Gattaca.

The Connector

Mark Wheeler

Photograph by Bruce Martin

Founder/principal of Alogra, which finds private-sector solutions for public-sector leaders

Do you use ChatGPT in your day-to-day? Yes. It’s started to replace the search engine for me in cases where I need to understand a technology or contrast two technologies. Depending on the subject and the LLM [large language model], I’ll ask for citations.

What’s the biggest opportunity for AI in government? One is Vision Zero [the pledge by governments to eliminate pedestrian and bicyclist accidents]. In combination, AI and lidar sensors have the ability to detect and warn drivers, bikers and pedestrians of near-collisions. This is occurring already in a couple of ways. One, vision sensors with AI are installed at intersections with high volumes of interaction between vehicles and pedestrians. Second, there are already connected vehicle solutions that can produce audio and visual warnings when a vehicle is predicted to hit a biker or pedestrian.

Favorite work of sci-fi? Contact, by Carl Sagan.

Transit’s Secret Weapon

Emily Yates

Photograph by Matt Courchain

Chief innovation officer at SEPTA

What’s a common misconception about AI? I think a lot of people hear AI and think it’s super-complex. But it can be really simple. You know, chatbots are all AI. When you’re surfing your phone and all of a sudden, you know, like, something pops up and you’re like, “How did it know that I was interested in toothpaste?” AI did that.

Biggest worry about AI in government? I think the biggest promise [leaders make] is that AI will solve everything. And I don’t think it will. There are just some things that a computer can’t fix. So I think making that promise and making that kind of statement is dangerous.

Best part of your job? There’s no shortage of opportunities to innovate and move SEPTA forward, and we have a leader [SEPTA GM Leslie Richards] who is supportive and has created the atmosphere that encourages that.

Favorite piece of sci-fi? I don’t mind sci-fi. It’s not my go-to genre.

The Caregiver

Janet Dillione

Photograph courtesy of Connect America

CEO of Connect America

Do you have an aha moment about AI’s capabilities? One profound realization in the AI field was witnessing how our AI-enabled virtual assistant, Esper, resonated with patients to the extent that they perceived her as an integral part of their care team. Esper texts individuals to remind them to take their vitals or conduct assessments, for example. This highlighted the impact AI can have in extending care into homes, addressing clinician shortages, and fostering genuine patient engagement. AI can bridge the gap between technology and human touch.

What worries you about AI? Potential errors, depersonalization, and job displacement. It’s crucial we ensure AI is deployed thoughtfully and ethically to enhance existing systems and services, rather than replacing essential human roles or functions.

Favorite piece of sci-fi? I’m a big fan of Dune parts one and two. It’s a compelling narrative that mixes political intrigue, cosmic mysticism and epic conflict. And the visuals are absolutely stunning!

The Governor’s AI Guru

Harrison MacRae

Photograph courtesy of Commonwealth of PA

PA’s director of emerging technologies

Do you have an aha moment about AI’s capabilities? Learning about the multimodal aspects of AI. The ability to easily go between text, audio and video in different languages opens the door to making different types of technology or services accessible for so many more people.

Do you use ChatGPT in your day-to-day? Yes, I do! I use ChatGPT through the Commonwealth’s pilot with OpenAI. I recently used ChatGPT to transcribe, organize and summarize information captured on a whiteboard and in co-workers’ handwritten notes from a meeting.

What’s a common misconception about AI? Sometimes AI refers to technology that is brand-new, but there are types of AI that already exist in our everyday lives — like Siri on our iPhones or the maps we use to reroute us on our commutes home — and much of this looks very different from the AI in most sci-fi.

Favorite piece of sci-fi? My all-time favorite sci-fi book is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

>> Click here to return to “How Philly Learned to Love AI”

Published as “Cracking the Code” in the June 2024 issue of Philadelphia magazine.