Westchester Businesses Welcome Artificial Intelligence

From dentistry offices to PR firms to college campuses, Westchester businesses are adopting AI tools. But the technology also comes with a dose of hype — and some downsides, too.

It’s easy to follow along with the public conversation on artificial intelligence (AI). Discussions about this technology dominate headlines, cable news shows, and chatter across social media.

What’s harder, however, is making sense of all this news. Is AI about to destroy the planet? Save it? Replace our jobs, or create entirely new ones?

The truth about AI is a bit more mundane — but only relative to the sensational headlines. As AI systems grow more advanced and pervasive, they’re still set to transform a range of Westchester’s industries and sectors.

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But first, an important question to put all of this into perspective: What exactly is AI?

“AI has been around for decades. It is integrated into the fabric of a lot of applications,” explains Robert Cioffi, CTO and co-founder of Yonkers-based Progressive Computing, which provides IT services to clients across the region.

Cioffi continues: “AI appears in your Amazon shopping experience, in Siri and Alexa and Google Assistant, in your Netflix recommendations.” Indeed, it’s the underlying technology that recommends products to you based on your past purchases, suggests which movie to watch based on your past viewings, and makes sense of your voice commands by tapping into its sprawling training data.

Michael Romita, President and CEO of the business advocacy group Westchester County Association (WCA), sums up the technology like so: “AI is filtering through information and reaching a probability.”

Despite its long history, there’s no denying AI is having a moment right now — one that began with the public release of ChatGPT in November 2022. AI “captured the minds and attention of people” when that chatbot went online, Cioffi says. By the first months of 2023, ChatGPT “hit 100 million subscribers,” he say, “and now the number has far surpassed that.”

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On the heels of that famous debut, more and more businesses — including many across Westchester — are seeking to harness the technology. Sometimes that happens in subtle ways: “You’re starting to see AI pop up in certain applications our customers use in their respective industries,” Cioffi says. But “you’re also seeing the broad things — the generative AI-type solutions like ChatGPT.”

Romita says for many local businesses, these are still early days. “Everybody is talking about this, but we’re mostly in the curiosity stage at this point. Businesses are still trying to navigate how to utilize this technology to assist themselves.”

Who’s Using AI?

Some of the businesses leveraging AI technology are the ones you’d expect: IT companies, like Progressive Computing, which has been operating for more than three decades. Right now, Cioffi and his team are integrating AI into the cybersecurity tools they use to protect clients; these AI systems can help identify and protect against risks. Much of Progressive Computing software is made by Microsoft, and so the company — and their clients — are also well-versed in Copilot, Microsoft’s AI assistant. “It’s essentially Microsoft’s commercial version of ChatGPT,” Cioffi explains.

Cioffi notes these AI applications are useful, but he sometimes has to temper clients’ expectations. “They just want to jump on the bandwagon for the sake of jumping on it,” he says. In response, he’ll ask clients what business problems they are trying to solve, or what goals they are trying to achieve. “And then I’ll ask, Does AI represent an answer to that?” Cioffi says. “Because it may not.”

Shanthan Subramaniam runs CMIT Solutions, another local IT shop. His franchise serves all of northern Westchester, and he notes more and more of the tools he uses have machine learning built in — a technology he calls “the building blocks of AI.” Like Cioffi, Subramaniam also uses AI in his cybersecurity work. “Today’s tools are more sophisticated,” he says.

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It’s no surprise that Westchester’s IT companies are leveraging AI technology. What’s unexpected is how other industries are using it — like dentistry. “We’ve got a few ways we’re using artificial intelligence in dental practice,” says Dr. Ken Magid of Advanced Dentistry of Westchester in Harrison.

Dr. Magid and his team are currently using AI tools to help with diagnoses. “Our X-rays are evaluated by AI,” he says. “It highlights areas of decay, areas of bone loss, and problems with roots of the teeth.” The ultimate diagnosis is always made by a human, Magid notes, but a second opinion can go a long way: “We’re human, and humans can miss something. AI can help prevent that from happening.”

Advanced Dentistry is also using AI technology within their CAD/CAM systems. (CAD/CAM stands for “computer-aided design” and “computer-aided manufacturing.”) When a patient is in need of a crown or an onlay, the CAD/CAM software system, bolstered by AI, can scan the tooth and surrounding area and then draw up plans. “It’s basically using artificial intelligence to design the crown,” Magid says. “And it’s also using machine learning to anticipate the shapes.”

Dental X-ray highlighting areas A.I. believes to be decay and outlining the crest of bone supporting the teeth for further evaluation. Highlighting does NOT mean that this is a diagnosis but rather an area to be investigated by the dentist.
Dental X-ray highlighting areas A.I. believes to be decay and outlining the crest of bone supporting the teeth for further evaluation. Highlighting does NOT mean that this is a diagnosis but rather an area to be investigated by the dentist. Photo courtesy of Advanced Dentistry of Westchester.

Magid’s practice has been using these types of AI for a few years. But Advanced Dentistry has introduced another AI application more recently, and outside of the dental treatment room: AI for customer communications. When customers post reviews online, AI tools help the team sort through them and determine which ones require responses.

Advanced Dentistry of Westchester
Photo courtesy of Advanced Dentistry of Westchester

“Our X-rays are evaluated by AI. It highlights areas of decay, areas of bone loss, and problems with roots of the teeth.”
—Dr. Ken Magid, Advanced Dentistry of Westchester

Using AI for communications is also becoming common for Westchester’s marketing firms. In Armonk, the PR firm Harrison Edwards recently rebranded as Harry, and AI played a large role in the makeover. At its rebrand party in April, the company featured AI-generated art and AI-powered word games.

“Lots of people in marketing and communications are talking about AI,” sayss Bob Knight, president and CEO of Harry. “It’s a great tool for the creative industries.”

Knight says his firm is taking full advantage of generative AI tools, including platforms like ChatGPT and Midjourney, which create images based on text prompts. “We’re using AI for content generation, graphic design, and brainstorming,” Knight says. The firm is also using it to automate some administrative tasks.

Harry Marketing rebrand party that featured AI-generated art and AI-powered word games
Harry Marketing rebrand party that featured AI-generated art and AI-powered word games. Photo courtesy of Harry Marketing.

“Clients are talking about it, too,” he says, noting the tenor of the conversations is positive: Harry’s clients see the technology as a beneficial tool, not a threat.

At the WCA advocacy group, Romita and his team have a wide view of the different industries leveraging AI. “The kinds of businesses that are looking at what AI can do for them run the gamut,” he says, listing accounting, law, finance, and higher education. Indeed, at Iona University in New Rochelle and Manhattanville University in Harrison, the administrations are integrating AI into their marketing, communications, and admissions.

“But the headline [industries] are healthcare and pharmaceuticals,” Knight says. Indeed, Tarrytown-based Regeneron Pharmaceuticals uses AI for research and development in the lab, including for its drug discovery work. The company has also published a public statement about its use of AI, in which they pledge to “responsibly and ethically use AI solutions to enable scientific advancement, support decision-making, and improve productivity and efficiency.”

The Dangers of AI

While the more catastrophic consequences of AI remain speculative — imagine Terminator-like supercomputers — the current technology still does carry risks and downsides. And Westchester isn’t immune.

“There’s a whole gamut of things to worry about, from privacy and confidentiality to hallucinations and bias,” says Cioffi, of Progressive Computing. AI systems can collect — and potentially expose — personal information. After all, that’s what they’re trained on. They are known to “hallucinate,” or confidently present fiction as fact. And these systems can discriminate and exclude, like when an algorithm unfairly denies a person a mortgage or insurance policy.

“I don’t want to make it sound all negative, because there are a lot of positive things about AI,” Cioffi says. “But there’s also some things you need to be cautious about, just like any other technology.”

Subramaniam at CMIT Solutions agrees: “Productivity is increasing for the businesses we work for. But nefarious actors are now seeing increased productivity, too.” He says AI can supercharge online dangers like phishing, hacking, and ransomware. “A teenager with access to ChatGPT or Copilot in various forms can now create their own nefarious tools if they wish to do so. It’s almost like an arms race — we both have the same tools.”

Romita, of the WCA, echoes the same. “As we’re becoming more reliant on these technologies, we have to be very careful about the potential downsides,” he says. “There are increasing cyber attacks all over the place.” Indeed, a hospital group and WCA member was the target of a cyber attack in 2023, says Romita, and “they had to take quick steps to minimize the damage.”

Meanwhile, AI hallucinations aren’t limited to silly ChatGPT blunders — they can exist in high-risk settings like healthcare, too. “Unfortunately, AI can go too far,” says Magid, of Advanced Dentistry. He says some AI programs have been known to diagnose problems that don’t actually exist, or to generate measurements that don’t make sense. “If you rely on those, you end up treating something that doesn’t need to be treated,” he says.

“A teenager with access to ChatGPT or Copilot in various forms can now create their own nefarious tools if they wish to do so. It’s almost like and arms race — we both have the same tools.”
—Shanthan Subramaniam, CMIT Solutions

AI Alliance
Photo courtesy of Manhattanville University

A.I. Alliance 360 – a series organized by the Business Council of Westchester. Manhattanville hosted their inaugural event in the series and brought together global leaders in business for a discussion on the future of AI. Business Council of Westchester President Marsha Gordon is at the podium and Manhattanville President Sánchez is pictured on right.

And of course, there’s that perpetual fear that AI will muscle real humans out of the workforce. While AI is not likely to replace dentists anytime soon, it might compete with the administrators in the front office. In healthcare, “AI is being looked at as a screening tool,” Romita says. “For instance, some sort of digital human who can interact with the public in the waiting room.” He notes that AI can excel at grunt work, like sifting through documents at a law firm. And in a matter of years down the line, “who does your personal taxes might look different,” he says.

On campus at Manhattanville University, faculty are actively confronting some of these issues. “We have weekly sessions with the staff community to practice improving our understanding of [AI], our ability to detect and mitigate biases in the generative responses, and our consideration of ethical uses and standards,” says Frank Sánchez, the school’s president. Sánchez notes this team is helping “prepare for the next stage of human-centered generative AI in academia.” And like just Cioffi, he also expresses concerns about privacy: “We have worked to ensure that students don’t experience harm, such as loss of control over their personal data.”

What’s Ahead

As AI becomes more pervasive across industries, Westchester’s workforce will need to adapt and master the technology. The region’s academies will play an outsized role in that.

“AI will be a force in all sectors of commerce and culture,” says Seamus Carey, president of Iona University. “AI does have a key place in our computer science program, and we will of course continue to support that. But the rise of generative AI expands the frame in which we need to consider its role.” Carey notes that fields as diverse as software development, finance, and writing will be impacted by AI. “We want to make sure our students have the benefit — and know how to address the challenges — of this new AI reality,” he says.

Right now, faculty across the Iona campus are blending AI into their curriculum, even in fields seemingly far-removed from the technology like English and marketing. “We have already launched a course focused on AI in a professional setting and are planning an interdisciplinary AI minor program for the fall,” Carey says. The university’s librarians have been enlisted in the initiative, helping students and staff to learn and master AI tools.

Ten miles north of Iona at Manhattanville, a similar sentiment exists. “In our computer science programs, most seniors include some element of AI in their self-selected capstone projects,” Sánchez says. But the trend isn’t limited to the CS department: “Across the curricula we are seeing faculty in diverse disciplines, such as education and economics, creating opportunities for students to explore real-world implications and use cases for AI. Or, AI-supported individualized learning,” Sánchez says.

While some in education have bristled at the thought of AI in the classroom, Sánchez says resistance isn’t the right approach. “While we could commit our energies to restricting the use of generative AI, we instead value the students’ need to become fluent in this technology to be prepared for the future of work,” he explains. “We’ve successfully integrated generative AI into our curriculum.”

AI can be exciting, scary, and mysterious all at once. But at its core, it’s just a technology.

“There’s a lot of hype, a lot of attention. I try to educate people about the Gartner Hype Cycle,” Cioffi says, referring to the well-worn trend of new technologies generating unrealistic hopes. “That’s where we are right now — the top of that hype cycle, where there’s a lot of over-inflated expectations. Soon we’ll be on the downward slope to the trough of disillusionment, and then rise into the plateau of productivity.”

Seamus Carey, Iona University
Photo by Ben Hider.

“AI does have a key place in our computer science program, and we will of course continue to support that. But the rise of generative AI expands the frame in which we need to consider its roll.”
—Seamus Carey, Iona University

“It’s going to take us a couple more years to really figure out how AI integrates into our technology, into our businesses, into our lives,” he says. But “it’ll definitely be there.”

Magid also sees the technology as inevitable: “AI is going to become pervasive in every form of business.” If it’s already showing up in the dentist’s office, it might show up next in the grocery store, the post office, or the town police department. (In fact, AI tools are already being used by all three.)

While no one can predict how exactly the technology and Westchester will intersect, business owners should ignore AI at their own peril. “If a business has not heard about AI, they’re probably under a rock,” Subramaniam says.

Related: What Does the Future of Business Look Like in Westchester?

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