By Tom Still

MADISON, Wis. – The world of artificial intelligence seems to involve more drama today than a daytime soap opera. The unexpected ouster of OpenAI executive Sam Altman by the company’s board of directors – followed by Altman’s equally surprising return – is one such example. Global worries about autonomous drones being able to carry out military strikes absent a final human order, which is technically already possible, is another.

Enter the steadying voice of Charles Isbell Jr., a nationally recognized expert in computing and AI who started work this summer at the UW-Madison as its latest provost.

If the UW-Madison was a private company, the role of provost might best be described as “Chief Academic Officer.” It is historically the No. 2 position on campus behind the chancellor. Isbell is settling into that role across UW-Madison’s many colleges and schools, but he also brings a wealth of experience in what is one of the defining technological moments in a generation.

The former dean of computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Isbell is also a prominent figure in the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, the Association for Computing Machinery and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He met Nov. 21 with a tech-savvy luncheon crowd in Madison to talk about computing, computing education and the intersection with social sciences, but the discussion quickly turned to the pros and possible cons of AI.

In essence, Isbell said, AI has been a concept in computing since the 1940s and it is now a powerful tool that is with us to stay. It’s how people use the tool that matters.

“If you ask the question about how AI is going to shape the future and whether it’s going to put us into some kind of doomsday spiral, what you’re really asking is whether computers will do that,” Isbell said. “The answer is sure: They could. They are wonderful tools, like fire. You wouldn’t worry about fire. It’s necessary. It keeps us warm through long winter nights. But it can also burn you. Computers are like that. What computers let you do is whatever you were going to do anyway, just a whole lot faster and with a whole lot more efficiency.”

Artificial intelligence is possible today because it’s “married with data, which we didn’t have 50 or 60 years ago and scalable computing, which we didn’t have access to 50 or 60 years ago,” he continued. “Once you have the data and the computing and the people together, you can do amazing things.”

It’s the “people” part that has some observers worried, simply because not everyone sets out to do good in the world. Isbell said he believes a system of checks and balances is evolving. In fact, he outlined some principles more than five years ago in testimony to the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Isbell advocated then for more “transparency” in the development of AI, which includes being able to inspect algorithms and create “long-lived” systems – not just single-use systems that are “transactional” and capable of being used for unintended purposes when released “into the wild.”

So, who should be thinking about using AI in their everyday work or lives? Just about everyone, Isbell told the Tech Council Innovation Network luncheon.

“It’s like asking the question, ‘Maybe computers can help me? ‘Maybe I should be thinking about networking and data?’ Of course, you should be,” he said. “The people who are going to be in trouble are (those who) don’t think carefully about who their audiences and who their customers are and bring them into the design process.”

Artificial intelligence is changing industries ranging from medicine to manufacturing, and from financial services to logistics. As those business sectors across Wisconsin adapt, it’s good to know Isbell comes with the background to help point the university’s many programs in a direction that will help.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at