Free Emory University class looks to put more Georgians at ease with AI

Joe Sutherland, director of the Center for AI Learning at Emory University, talks at the center's free summer educational program meeting in McDonough on Tuesday, July 2, 2024. It was one of nearly 20 free community classes Emory will hold in locations around Georgia. (Ziyu Julian Zhu / AJC)

Credit: Ziyu Julian Zhu/AJC

Credit: Ziyu Julian Zhu/AJC

Joe Sutherland, director of the Center for AI Learning at Emory University, talks at the center's free summer educational program meeting in McDonough on Tuesday, July 2, 2024. It was one of nearly 20 free community classes Emory will hold in locations around Georgia. (Ziyu Julian Zhu / AJC)

Sukari Johnson showed up to a Henry County Parks & Recreation classroom looking for ways to use artificial intelligence to boost her small business.

She’d like to automate some of her email tasks so that she can quickly respond to customers who contact her travel and events company. At a nearby desk, a real estate agent wondered about using AI programs to enhance images. Both came to the small class hosted by Emory University’s Center for AI Learning for a better understanding of the emerging technology.

“A lot of people are afraid of this,” said the center’s founding director Joe Sutherland, as he demonstrated various uses for AI. “My contention is that it’s going to be just like the internet. It’s going to be another tool.”

The free course, offered on a hot July evening in McDonough, over 30 miles south of Emory’s Atlanta campus, is aimed at exposing a broader audience to the advantages of AI. It was one of nearly 20 free community classes Emory will hold in locations around Georgia, from Rome to Macon, Columbus, Savannah, Athens and Augusta and points in between. The two-hour “AI + You” sessions are scheduled through mid-September through a partnership with the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the Rowen Foundation.

Sukari Johnson (left), from Lake Spivey, interacts with another audience member at a community class hosted by Emory University's Center for AI Learning in McDonough on Tuesday, July 2, 2024.  (Ziyu Julian Zhu / AJC)

Credit: Ziyu Julian Zhu/AJC

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Credit: Ziyu Julian Zhu/AJC

Sutherland said the use of AI has so far been mostly confined to high-tech industries and academia. For Georgia to continue to grow its economy and remain competitive, a broader swath of the workforce needs training.

“I think that this AI revolution is something that everybody should have a chance at being a part of,” he said in an interview.

The courses provide a primer on artificial intelligence and introduce tools such as ChatGPT. That program launched publicly in late 2022 with the ability to generate essays, emails, business plans, computer code and perform other tasks.

The statewide learning push comes as Georgia lawmakers wrestle with the potential and the pitfalls brought by AI. It can make work more efficient, but it also poses data security risks and has been used by bad actors to manipulate images and sound and create deepfake videos, among other concerns.

A Senate Study Committee on Artificial Intelligence met for the first time in late June to discuss if and how Georgia should regulate AI technologies. That panel also will examine the impact on jobs, education and public safety, among other areas. The committee’s chair, state Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, told lawmakers he wants to find a framework “that does not stifle innovation” but provides protections.

“The opportunities in front of us will cure some of the world’s greatest issues and crises,” he said, and added: “However, it also has the propensity to do great harm and evil.”

State Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024. Albers is chair of a study committee on artificial intelligence. (Natrice Miller / AJC)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

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Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

A recent National Society of High School Scholars survey of more than 10,000 Generation Z students found 62% are worried about job displacement because of AI. And almost as many of those students, born after 1997, think the technology will have a more negative than positive impact on society over the next decade, the report said.

Sutherland said those who adapt to AI earlier will be more competitive for jobs, earn more and have more free time. He told the McDonough class he thinks the technology will help automate manufacturing work, for example, but questioned if it will replace as many jobs as some estimate. He highlighted a need for more workforce development efforts to train people everywhere, including in rural areas, to use AI programs.

“My mission through this tour is making sure that it’s not just a small pocket of people who have access to these technologies first while everybody else is waiting around,” he said in an interview.

Joe Sutherland, founding director of Emory University's Center for AI Learning, leads a free summer educational class in McDonough on Tuesday, July 2, 2024.  (Ziyu Julian Zhu / AJC)

Credit: Ziyu Julian Zhu/AJC

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Credit: Ziyu Julian Zhu/AJC

Said Daniela Perry, vice president of the Georgia Chamber Foundation: “People talk about what could happen to the workforce because of AI. We really see the opportunity for individuals to really move into really meaningful careers and move upward.”

Those who attend one of Emory’s summer courses will get three months of access at no cost to ChatGPT through the university’s AI platform. This fall, Emory also will launch a new continuing education certification program in AI that’s geared to nontraditional students.

The 50 participants at the first community AI class held in Valdosta ranged from small-business owners and chief executives to local elected officials and retirees. About 70 showed up to a Monday class in Sandy Springs.

Only a few people turned out for the McDonough session on July 2, but organizers expect classes to grow at upcoming events. Johnson had used ChatGPT before but didn’t know that she could go back and forth with the program, entering additional information and telling it what to focus on, to refine and customize the responses.

“I didn’t know that you could speak to it in that way, so that was good to know,” she said.

At that class, Sutherland wowed the small group by asking ChatGPT to create a detailed social media marketing plan to sell a house. The program spit out a weekly schedule for posting content to Instagram and Facebook and suggested focusing on the house’s unique features.

“You don’t even have to think,” marveled one audience member, partly in jest.

Sutherland countered with a word of caution, urging users to still review and edit any AI-generated output.

“You do have to think still,” he said.


If you go

What: The “AI + You” tour is hosted by Emory University’s Center for AI Learning. The free, two-hour classes are open to the public.

When: Classes continue through Sept. 17.

For a list of locations and to register: Visit aiandyougeorgia.com