The reality of AI

Unless you’ve just awakened from an especially long nap, you’ve probably heard about artificial intelligence (AI). Much of what you’ve heard is likely either exciting or terrifying. Movies and TV offer paradises in which technology frees us from daily drudgery — and frightening scenarios involving machine uprisings.

Venkat Banunarayanan smiles when asked if popular media’s takes on AI are accurate. “We’re at the stage of discovery with AI,” he said. “There’s a lot more buzz than reality at this point, and we have a long way to go.”

As the vice president for integrated grid business and technology strategies for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, Banunarayanan spends some of his time exploring possible uses for AI and augmented/virtual reality (VR), while considering how they might improve the way electric co-ops serve their consumer-members.

“Can AI do things better? Can it handle some of the tasks we have to do today? Can it make decisions for us?” Banunarayanan rhetorically asked. “The answer to those and most other questions is the same: maybe.”

Industry experts agree it’s impossible to guess where AI will be in another decade or two, but it’s currently not as powerful as Hollywood seems to think.

AI is being incorporated for specific tasks and activities, including automated solutions like chatbots capable of answering common questions. AI also has the potential to be paired with data analysis, such as retailers using data to predict customer needs.

Despite what you may have heard, AI is not capable of thinking on its own. The functionality greatly depends on programming, how the tool is trained to handle specific tasks, and the level of data being fed into the system. AI revolves around learning and adapting to decision-making.

Because these new technologies interface with internal and external systems, Banunarayanan stressed the importance of strong cybersecurity. “We need to make sure hackers can’t influence systems,” he warned. “When we consider advancements like AI, we need to ensure protection of personal, critical infrastructure, proprietary and confidential data, too.”

Maintaining robust cyber-hygiene is important and necessary to deploy any technology in a reliable and safe manner — AI is no different in this regard.

As electric co-ops explore the possibilities of AI, they will focus on underlying needs rather than the technology itself. Examining better ways to accomplish tasks and obtain desired results will guide co-ops as they consider AI tools for more efficient processes.

Despite the hype, today’s AI is mostly being used to make incremental improvements to existing products and services. That’s how electric co-ops are likely to experience the growth of AI in the foreseeable future. For example, the next generation of smart meters might incorporate AI tools to help homeowners better manage their energy use.

AI-based systems may also be used to improve management of the nation’s power grid, spotting potential problems before human operators can. Electric co-ops could use chatbots to help answer members’ questions and requests more quickly. Weather forecasts are likely to become more accurate, pinpointing the areas most likely to experience damage so crews can be stationed there.

Ultimately, the adoption of AI, VR and other promising technologies share one goal for electric co-ops. From solving outages more quickly to allowing greater control over energy use and lowering the cost of service, tomorrow’s innovative technologies will continue to help co-ops enhance the services they provide to their local communities.