If you’ve been to a transportation related conference lately, you’ve likely sat through an educational session in which someone describes a new technology that is trained on AI or leverages machine learning. Without additional context however, we’re left to decide if using AI will give us an edge over the competition or if it is simply the beginning of the next Terminator movie. So, what exactly is AI? How does it work and how will it help?

Artificial intelligence (AI) generally refers to the theory and development of computer systems capable of performing tasks that historically reserved for humans. It is an umbrella term that encompasses a wide variety of technologies and automation, including machine learning, deep learning, and natural language processing.

AI works by simulating human intelligence processes. It collects and analyzes data extracted from various sources like sensors, databases, and the internet, then processes the data using one of several algorithm types, each designed and built for a specific task.

AI excels at analyzing data, recognizing patterns and using this information to make predictions or recommendations. In the trucking industry, use cases for AI include route optimization, shipment tracking, price quotes, supply chain management, predictive maintenance, and yes, autonomous trucking. Some dashcams have AI built in to identify problematic driving patterns and suggest coaching opportunities. Compliance functions are increasingly becoming targets of AI as well, helping to speed up routine compliance and auditing tasks.

What AI does not do is think critically. It lacks a holistic understanding of systems and the impact of forces outside of the data on which it has been trained. It is not self-aware and does not have intuition or an ethical frame, features that are critical to making decisions for which we don’t have reams of data to depend. It does not think. It makes predictions based on identified patterns and mathematical computations. This is an important caveat for those of us familiar with AI Chatbots being deployed in our favorite web browser or services like ChatGPT. While these services can offer useful information, they should be used with caution as the lack of context, and reliable source citation, sometimes produces inaccurate results.

To be sure, AI is a revolutionary technology that is bound to change the way we do business. We should be cautious how we use it but not fearful. It’s true that AI may ultimately displace some workers, but for those of us savvy enough to understand and leverage the power of AI, it will assist, not replace, us. Critical thought, ethical considerations and intuition will remain the domain of human brains.