Sonoma State hosts 2024 North Bay Business Journal Economic Summit

February 29, 2024
People shaking hands

NBBJ Publisher Lorez Bailey and SSU President Mike Lee; photo by Charlie Gesell for North Bay Business Journal

Economic Summit logo
People shaking hands
Economic Summit logo

Artificial intelligence (AI) will not wipe out humanity, destroy jobs, or make humans lazy and stupid, according to Dr. Alexander “Sasha” Sidorkin, but educators and others must be vigilant about its use and how students, especially, are prepared for life in an AI-rich society.

Sidorkin, Chief AI Officer and Director of the National Institute on Artificial Intelligence in Education, was the keynote speaker Thursday, February 29, at the 2024 North Bay Business Journal Economic Summit. The summit, presented in partnership with Sonoma State University, drew 150-plus regional business and community leaders to the SSU Student Center ballrooms for a morning of largely AI-focused presentations.

Sidorkin, former dean of the College of Education at Sacramento State University, had “Three Myths and One Real Worry: AI in Education and the Workforce” as his theme. He immediately set about putting to rest the three main myths about artificial intelligence:

  • While it is “theoretically possible” that machines might one day figure out how to wipe out humanity on their own, “there are no cases yet – other than lying – that AI does anything harmful to humans,” Sidorkin said.
  • AI’s reputation as a job destroyer is based largely on algorithms that bring outrageous claims to the top of Internet conversation, he continued. While tools like ChatGPT can handle routine cognitive tasks and what Sidorkin described as “mid-range” writing, any substantive changes to jobs “will take years. Human society’s ability to change is limited,” he said. What’s more, many “non-progressive” industries that don’t involve transfer of information – think live theater, or sports, or counseling/therapy – will not be much affected by AI, if at all.
  • Lazier and stupider? No. “People tend to get smarter, not stupider,” Sidorkin asserted. Noting that AI can really only handle routine work, he added that past generations had the same concerns about the alleged intelligence-rotting effects of radio, television, video games, and the Internet. “But every generation is a little bit smarter than their parents. Not that much, maybe, but a little bit.”

The “one real worry” Sidorkin addressed focused on the importance of access to AI technology by students and by the broadest possible cross-section of society, so that it is understood, moderated, and used as a force for advancing knowledge and productivity rather than spreading disinformation or being solely at the disposal of a select few.

“What we don’t want to happen – like sometimes happens with other technologies – is for more rich, more affluent classes to adopt it first,” he said. “There is a role for society –  for governments, and nonprofits, and businesses, and chambers of commerce … to kind of steer it in a way of more equity and more broad democratic access.

He concluded with a message for educators about adopting AI.

“Some people critique higher education that we’re not fast enough adopting it, the new technology. That’s not really true. Every university that I know of has a committee or a task force or something looking into it, people really actively engaging with the new technology.

“We’ve lived through several transitions in my lifetime, and we were able to figure them out, not just in education, but in all industries.”

The summit, emceed by Lorez Bailey, publisher of the North Bay Business Journal, opened with remarks by SSU President Mike Lee, who observed that there’s no better place to talk about economic development than a university and commended those gathered for their investment in improving the region. The summit is “Bringing an intellectual force together to do something for the community,” he said. “We really need to put our heads together and think about the future of North Bay’s economy.”

The morning’s events also included short AI presentations by:

  • Dr. Emily Harburg, CEO and Founder of PairUp, who spoke about “AI + Human Connection: Can technology bring us together rather than pulling us apart?”
  • Fiza Shaukat, CEO and Co-Founder of Patient First.AI, whose topic was “AI to Improve Student Wellness and Wellbeing.”
  • Dr. John Sullins, SSU Professor of Philosophy and Director of Programming for the university’s Center for Ethics, Law, and Society, who addressed “Responsible Use of Generative AI in Higher Ed.”

The summit concluded with a summary and forecast of national and regional economic trends by Dr. Robert Eyler, a Professor of Economics at SSU and a widely cited and quoted expert on regional and national economic issues. Referencing predictive analytics across a variety of categories, notably unemployment and inflation, Eyler said that on a national level, “the forecast looks pretty good. There’s a lot of resilience in the American economy.”

The North Bay outlook is generally positive if a bit less rosy, Eyler said:

  • Wages have increased, but inflation has outpaced those increases in some counties.
  • Housing prices generally are up in both one-year (2023) and four-year (2019-2023)  measurements, which is good for homeowners but less good for new/potential workers seeking affordable housing.
  • Housing units (build permits) are expected to increase over the next few years but flatten out by the end of the decade.

To the surprise of some in the audience, the population of the North Bay is not expected to increase, in net, over the next 40 years, Eyler concluded.

In addition to the North Bay Business Journal and Sonoma State, the summit was sponsored by Exchange Bank, Redwood Credit Union, and Canopy Health.

Photos from the Summit are in the North Bay Business Journal online edition.

Media Contact

Janet Durkin