Wex uses machine learning and artificial intelligence in its day-to-day operations. At its call centers, the payment processing firm uses speech recognition technology to route calls. When monitoring accounts for fraud risk, the company uses sophisticated data analysis built by algorithm.
Those efforts are part of what has made Wex one of the fastest-growing companies in the world, and the skills will only be more coveted in the future.
That’s a major reason Wex and nine other leading Maine businesses have partnered with Northeastern University to create a graduate school and research center in Portland that would offer certificate programs, master’s degrees and doctorates in machine learning and artificial intelligence, with an emphasis on life sciences such as biology and genetics.
With a plan to enroll its first students this fall, the Roux Institute has the potential to fill a critical need in Maine’s workforce while making the state attractive to prospective employees in a field with high salaries. The average U.S. salary is $105,000 for a data scientist and $124,000 for a machine learning engineer, according to the networking site LinkedIn. The median household income in Maine is just over $55,000.
“If you think about Maine in particular, there are a lot of undergraduate institutions, but if you have employees who might want to advance their skills, there are not a lot of options here,” said Melanie Tinto, chief human resources officer for Wex. If those employees leave the state to pursue advance learning, they may not come back, she said.
Companies increasingly rely on data-driven machine learning and artificial intelligence. Machine learning involves teaching computers to perform tasks, answer questions or solve problems quickly using data analysis. Many people may not realize it, but machine learning has become part of everyday life.
When you watch a Tyler the Creator video on YouTube and get recommendations for videos by other new rap artists, that’s machine learning. When you scroll through Facebook and see certain posts elevated in your feed, that’s Facebook’s algorithm catering to your interests based on your previous interactions.
Amazon’s business model, which recommends products based on its customers’ shopping and browsing history, is built largely on machine learning. Retailers such as Walmart use artificial intelligence to monitor stores in real time to see if produce is fresh or if inventory is low.
Companies used to rely on humans to analyze data and build systems. Now, much of that can be automated. But humans write the codes and develop the algorithms. Those skills – already highly sought – are becoming more valuable.
Idexx, another major employer that has partnered with Northeastern on the new institute, increasingly uses advanced technology in developing its diagnostic and IT products for veterinarians. The company recently announced a cloud-based software update for its diagnostic imaging platform that will employ the first use of artificial intelligence in veterinary radiology, giving veterinarians the ability to diagnose faster.
But that firm, like others in Maine, also has had a hard time hiring highly skilled employees.
Doug Sawyer, chief academic officer for MaineHealth, another Roux Institute partner, said the biggest area for machine learning at his hospitals is in health informatics, or using electronic medical record data to improve patient care.
“It hasn’t come to fruition yet, in part because we don’t have the workforce needed to advance these ideas and develop the programs,” he said.
Another area where artificial intelligence could improve things is through tracking data to spot illnesses that are linked only by genetic testing, Sawyer said.
But the hospitals in the MaineHealth network, which include Maine Medical Center, use artificial intelligence already, in areas such as monitoring data streams of cardiac rhythms to detect irregular heartbeats sooner.
Joan Ferrini-Mundy, president of the University of Maine, said the new institute will benefit not just businesses but other academic institutions, though faculty collaboration and research.
“One thing that we think is really interesting is that business partners will get to shape the design of what students will learn,” she said. In that sense, she said, the institute will target the needs of the workforce, providing another reason for them to stay in Maine.
Northeastern’s established history with co-ops – in which students spend a year with local employers – makes it a strong fit to educate prospective employees in a way that might convince them to stay after they earn degrees, said Wex’s Tinto.
“If you think about data engineering and artificial intelligence, those are some of the top-rated skills,” she said. “Pair that with a great place to live and work and we really see that is a great opportunity.”
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