Father Bud Grant led St. Ambrose University students through Iowa’s Loess Hills National Scenic Byway.
“There you are, fellas. How are you all?” he asked as wolves, deer and bison wandered past. Birds flew overhead, and the ground crunched under foot.
Seconds later, the whole class was transported to another part of the state, where they studied the aftermath of a wildfire. Then, by taking off their virtual reality (VR) headsets, they were back in Davenport.
Students in Grant’s Ecology Ethics class regularly take “virtual field trips” to study different environments. In the coming years, he hopes to use the technology for his historical theology classes, too, taking students to Florence at the time of the Renaissance, for instance.
“It’s another thing where you can get up close and personal to great works of art, and it’s a whole lot cheaper than the $2,500 plane ticket,” he said.
People are also reading…
Virtual Reality, ChatGPT and other bots are used interchangeably, but they have vastly different purposes. What unites them is the use of artificial intelligence, AI, to create user formats.
Put simply, AI uses data and computer science to solve real-world problems, according to IBM. Hollywood has long popularized AI in the science-fiction genre with films, such as “Westworld,” “The Matrix” and “Star Trek.” In the past few decades, AI has evolved from a fictional concept to one used in real time.
Subfields have expanded from AI to include applications, such as ChatGPT, which is a chatbot that follows a prompt, then writes a response, using data available online. Locally, businesses have been adapting to AI and even profiting off the emerging technology.
Davenport-based VictoryXR was founded by Steve Grubbs in 2016. Through the use of augmented and virtual reality, the company creates virtual learning environments. Initially, the company started with three employees but since has expanded to include more than 25 and has opened a second office in Texas.
“AI has been around for a number of years, but the breaking point for the new generation occurred in 2013,” Grubbs said.
During the past 10 years, his team has had time to prepare for innovation in AI and, with the launch of ChatGPT in November, developments are moving faster than ever.
“We’ve been utilizing AI for a couple of years, but now we are able to accelerate it, due to some recent advancements,” he said.
Those advancements include allowing professors to create their own virtual reality spaces for education. In the Quad-Cities region, St. Ambrose is emerging as an educational leader in the virtual reality world.
In the summer of 2021, Grant said, members of the SAU faculty were asked if they would be interested in becoming certified to teach VR. Along with about 30 others, he took the required courses and became certified, but it wasn’t as easy as it sounds.
“I will tell you, it’s the hardest things I’ve done since my dissertation,” Grant said.
With 28 years of work at St. Ambrose, Grant said, he is nearing the end of his academic career, but technology still is evolving.
“I don’t want to be left behind,” he said. “I’m afraid this is the future, and I want to understand it and be able to use it.”
From an education standpoint, VR offers teachers a safe way to transport students beyond the walls of their classrooms.
“We’re not going to go stand in the middle of a prairie herd,” Grant said. “This allows us to go right out in the herd and see their behavior and their physical make-up real close up.”
While the technology is new to Grant, it’s new for the majority of his students, too, he said. In his Environmental Ethics class, only one student had used VR before. Because the students have grown up with evolving technology, they take to it quickly.
“This is their world, even if it’s brand new to them,” he said. “They have an intuitive grasp on the way everything works.”
The biggest advantage Grant sees is helping students who learn through physical activities. In a traditional educational setting, those students can get left behind. By being immersed in the environment, it allows them to expand their horizons and learn in a way that works for them.
“I see this as a means of engaging those kinds of kids,” he said. “On the flip side of that, we have students that are really good at sitting and taking notes, and this sort of learning experience may be uncomfortable for them. But that’s OK, too.”
Other ways to teach
Every growth period comes with a period of discomfort. To ease that transition, Grubbs and the VictoryXR team are working on a new program to be used in nursing schools. VictoryXR has created 50 “conversational AI avatars” that will take the place of human actors.
Each avatar will be pre-programmed with a variety of health problems and diseases and will be able to communicate virtually.
“That gives us the ability to create a patient who is having chest pain. That patient, the avatar, walks into an emergency room, and there is a nursing student there,” Grubbs explained.
The student in turn has a conversation with the patient to advance a diagnosis. Everything in the virtual patient’s brain was put there by its creator, including family history, symptoms and personality traits.
“That allows us to make sure that the school is having the information taught that they want taught,” he said.
The benefit to the school, he said, is two-fold. The software comes at a fraction of the cost of hiring human actors, and it allows students the opportunity to practice their skills on a variety of diagnoses.
“There are a lot of conditions that a medical professional may only see once a year,” he said. “We can put patients into our patient lineup that have both common and rare diseases, so that medical professionals get used to seeing all of them.”
The program is still under construction, Grubbs said, but clients who have been introduced to it are excited at the prospect. Among the team of experts are a local nurse practitioner, who is acting as the subject-matter expert. There’s also a coder, modeler and curriculum specialist, who ensure the information is presented in a way that works for education.
Another project the VictoryXR team is working on brings historic figures back to life. Developers are in the processes of taking Aristotle’s writings and uploading them to the AI software. They then will add historical context from when he was alive, including his biography. Students then can step into the “time machine” and have a full conversation with Aristotle.
“We have an entire lineup of historical figures we will use for that,” Grubbs said.
Already in use
While some formats still are in the works, one that has been deployed is the use of AI welding. Students at Bettendorf High School find it allows them to experience the trade before committing fully.
Sophomore Alex Reando said that walking into the welding room for the first time gave him sensory overload. By going into the adjacent classroom where four VR welding machines waited, he was able to focus and try welding without the pressure of using real equipment.
“The other one, you have more of a risk of it setting on fire, getting hurt, electrocuting yourself, and I was very overwhelmed just getting started,” he said.
Classmate Lexi Glenn signed up for welding by accident.
“I was trying to do metal working, but then I was like, ‘Oh, welding. My stepdad does that; it’ll be fine.’ Little did I know how overwhelming it could get, but thanks to the VR, it’s not as loud as out there, and it’s a lot calmer,” she said.
She gave traditional welding a try but quickly learned she was not ready for it. After speaking with her instructor, Dan Milburn, he set her up with a virtual station. After a few sessions, she felt confident enough to try the traditional route.
The virtual reality setups are a great stepping stone for students who need to start slowly, Milburn said. But they come at a significant cost: $12,500 each.
For that reason, the practicality of virtual welding loses its luster, he said. With about 168 students taking welding at Bettendorf, getting a virtual set for everyone would not be practical.
Instead, students take turns on the four the school has, and they get the same education they would with a traditional welding machine. That is where he sees the value.
“This does have a lot of learning tools that goes along with it,” he said. “For what we have for introductory courses, it does exactly what we need it to do.”
Platforms for business
While VR is still working its way from the classroom to the workplace, AI as a whole is moving quickly. At Northwest Bank & Trust Company, CEO Joe Slavens said, there have been no formal adoptions yet, but those could be in the works soon.
“We’re sort of at the place now where, depending on the job that someone is doing, they may be using it to assist them in a more informal fashion,” he said. “A lot of banks, larger banks, are definitely using it for help with chatbots.”
Many businesses, not just banks, have an automated chat box that pops up when someone enters their website. The AI bot then communicates with the person, helping them navigate the website. Northwest Bank does not have this feature but is considering how to use it for jobs, such as drafting letters to customers.
“We’re at a size where we’re basically looking at it from what our vendors are providing and how could an individual employee use it,” Slavens said.
In the construction world, the possibilities are slowly emerging as well. Nate Zigler, a pre-construction manager with Estes Construction, said his company was taking a “cautious, optimistic approach” to the use of AI.
For now, the use is limited and has been tested for administrative duties. On construction sites, most interactions are person-to-person, which does not currently leave room for AI.
“It’s so vast that heavy usage in AI, at least in the office sense, is probably a ways away,” Zigler said.
In banking, Slavens said, a common use of AI is fraud detection. Northwest uses vendors for its credit and debit cards, and those providers use AI to search for unusual spending patterns and to flag accounts.
“It’s definitely much more accurate than it is inaccurate,” he said.
Slavens views AI from two perspectives: internal uses and external uses. Internal refers to how the bank can apply AI to improve its own processes. External uses would be ways in which the bank could improve upon customer experience.
“In terms of the external, it’s definitely about looking at consumer behavior — in terms of the products they can benefit from most that they don’t currently have,” he said.
He compared it to data analysis, where the computer will look for circumstances that would suggest a customer could use a new product the bank offers, such overdraft protection or a new home equity line. With AI, they could search for specific customer needs, rather than bulk mailings or robo calls that aren’t always appreciated.
“It’s cheaper and more effective, but we all get tired of legitimate sales and marketing efforts that, because we’re not interested in the product, come off as spam,” he said.
From the bank’s perspective, it’s a money saver. From the customer’s standpoint, it’s a much more satisfactory experience, he said. Internally, the bank is looking at using AI for financial analysis. When customers apply for consumer loans, for instance, staff could use AI to get approvals done faster.
“One of the benefits of a smaller organization is that we can do that a little easier,” Slavens said.
The bank already does this work in-house, but with AI, staff could navigate the regulations faster. From a compliance standpoint, banking already is the most heavily regulated industry in the country, he said.
“We could be educated in a much more concise manner about what’s applicable (regulation) and what is not,” he said.
Teaching, banking, construction too
Efficiency gains are on Zigler’s mind at Estes as well.
One approach the company is looking at is for “take off,” which is the point at which the company receives the blueprints for a project. Currently, a staffer must manually calculate how much flooring is needed, how many doors have to be ordered, etc.
“We basically break down the whole building into its components, so we can apply costs to it,” he said.
The process is time consuming, but with AI, it could be done in seconds, he said. He cannot see a world in which AI plays into accounting, but the story is different at the bank.
For Slavens, privacy concerns are at the fore when it comes to emerging technology. AI uses public information to provide its response, but critical, private information is not shared, he said.
“We live in a world of maintaining the privacy of people’s financial information,” he said. “The moment you put data into these public AI systems … it becomes public data.”
Instead, Slavens said, the bank would need to look into a reverse system in which AI is imported, rather than exporting private information.
“Instead of pushing your data out, you’re pulling the AI in,” he said.
Many legacy systems for data already exist, meaning the bank would use vendors only in a secured environment. Ethical disclosure is another key element to the implementation. Anytime AI is being used, it needs to be disclosed to all parties, Slavens said.
“Because of its own strengths and weaknesses, whenever it’s used to develop something … people ought to be listing their bibliography — not only the sources they used, but what form of AI was used,” he said.
The various forms of AI are what Zigler thinks will slow down its integration into the business world. With so many to choose from, it could be a while before a “one-size-fits-all” format is developed.
“The thing with the construction industry and some of the challenges that we face; there’s a whole wide range of contractors of different sizes and capabilities,” he said. “Implementing AI to manage all those differences, that will be a pretty big challenge for the industry.”
Launching AI in Q-C manufacturing
One Quad-City company that is using AI is Arconic, a steel-manufacturing plant. At the beginning of May, the company announced that Apollo Global Management, Inc. was buying Arconic for $5.2 billion.
Despite the massive change in power, capital projects still are underway. Erika Fasco, a staff process engineer, said the company was working on an asset/liability solution project.
“The goal for this project is to reduce our downtime, and that will allow us to increase our operation and output,” she said.
The AI technology will come in the form of sensors that will be placed on equipment, which ultimately would be used to predict equipment failures.
“This solution analyzes our process and equipment data that will trigger alarms and display them in order of priority,” she said.
Currently, the company uses a reliability team, which must check for failures manually. Because the team is in charge of the entire plant, each piece of equipment is inspected only during its rotation.
“It’ll be very helpful, just in terms of historical tracking of where the system and equipment (failure) is in order to flag it,” she said.
For maintenance purposes, the sensors will automatically file them as high priority and bring attention to the problem quickly. Fasco said right now, this is the only form of AI the company is looking at, but if it works, it may expand the system to other machines in the plant.
“I think it’ll get the right things done at the right time,” she said.