Artificial Intelligence: Our New Superpower?

A closeup of a man’s chest and he pulls a white button down shirt to either side showing the letters AI underneath, similar to Superman.

Some people find generative artificial intelligence, like ChatGPT, threatening, but it holds great promise. [Illustration: John Pelerossi, USF Advancement]


DID YOU ASK ALEXA TO SET A TIMER while you were cooking dinner last night?

Start the day with the weather forecast courtesy of Siri?

Artificial intelligence — AI for short — has become so intertwined with our daily lives that most of us probably don’t give it a second thought. Need help planning a trip? What about getting that last-minute birthday present delivered tomorrow? Stymied by a problem at work, or with homework?

How we think about AI has changed dramatically over the past year with the advent of generative AI chatbots ChatGPT, Google Bard, Bing Chat, DALL-E2 and more.

What is generative artificial intelligence? Just ask Bing Chat.

“Generative artificial intelligence is a type of AI that can generate new forms of creative content, such as audio, code, images, text, simulations and videos. Generative AI models learn the patterns and structure of their input training data and then generate new data that has similar characteristics.”

That was Bing Chat’s response to this prompt: Define generative artificial intelligence in 50 words.

As the technology evolves at breakneck speed, the question being asked across all sectors of society is whether AI poses a threat or holds promise.

Prasant Mohapatra, USF’s provost and executive vice president of academic affairs, says the answer is both.

“We have to do some trade-offs between threat and promise,” says Mohapatra, an accomplished researcher in wireless networks, mobile communications, cybersecurity and internet protocols. “It has the potential to be very positive, but if generative AI is used in inappropriate ways, it may have unintended — or intended — severe consequences.”

Mohapatra co-chairs the Generative AI Strategic Planning Group, created by USF President Rhea Law and composed of faculty, staff and administrators to develop guidelines for using the technology. Members are exploring AI’s role in teaching and learning, as well as operationally in such areas as human resources, admissions, and business and finance.

“AI is not magical, it is based on fundamental aspects of science, and we want our students to learn about the foundations of AI and how it can be leveraged in a positive way,” Mohapatra says. “At the same time, we have to make sure the future generation of leaders — our students — learn about the negative aspects, that if it is not used in a proper way, it can do more harm than good.”

On the operations side, Mohapatra says, “Things are moving so quickly, we have to make sure that the AI tools we are using meet our requirements for performance and accuracy.”

There also are ethical considerations, such as in the purchase of products and services.

“We should not have vendor selection software driven by AI that is biased toward only large corporations,” he says.

Sidney Fernandes, MS ’00, vice president of information technology and chief information officer at USF, co-chairs the strategic planning group. Generative AI has taken the world by storm and it’s very promising, he says. But he also has concerns.

“There has to be a lot of effort by those using AI to ensure that it is used ethically, that it is used with a fair degree of skepticism of the answers it provides and that it is used as an assistant to the human being, not as a replacement,” he says.

As an example, Fernandes referred to recent cases where other universities used plagiarism detection software to determine whether essays submitted by students were original work or AI-generated.

“In some cases, students who were caught cheating were wrongly accused because AI has some implicit biases, especially toward non-native speakers,” he says.

Jenifer Jasinski Schneider, ’89 and MA ’92, a professor of literacy studies and president of the Faculty Senate, also serves on the planning group. She says faculty members have expressed mixed reactions to generative AI.

“Some are very interested in it and see the potential and are excited about learning about it,” she says. “Others are very suspicious and concerned.”

While she can “see all sides to it,” Schneider views AI as a tool with great promise.

“I’ve been using it in a variety of ways, such as developing a course and in writing emails,” she says. “I’ve asked it questions to see what it knows, whether it’s accurate. A colleague and I have been playing around with how we query it, because how you prompt it changes the responses you receive.”

She feels a sense of urgency when it comes to AI in the classroom.

“We have to make sure our students are prepared for the workforce,” she says, “that they understand what business, or medicine, or education, or social science is doing with AI.”

Worries about students using AI to plagiarize “should just be taken off the table,” she adds. “AI is here to stay. As educators, perhaps we need to think about how we use writing as a catchall assignment to demonstrate knowledge. Maybe we could use alternative methods.”

Kobe Phillips, a senior majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology and a member of USF’s Judy Genshaft Honors College, uses an AI design tool in one of his classes — something that is encouraged by his professor. Phillips believes AI is a “phenomenal resource” for students and faculty.

“There is so much potential in this space, be it for helping students to create study guides or create code or new solutions when they couldn’t think of one, or even for professors for generating questions,” Phillips says. “As students, we want to put our best foot forward. We are here to learn and these new resources could transform our ability to learn.”


Two framed images, one a still life of fruit overlaid with digital lines, the other a pixelated image of the Mona Lisa, float on a background of circuitry.

Generative artificial intelligence can render beautiful images, but it can’t generate ideas and direction — that’s what artists bring. [Illustration: John Pelerossi, USF Advancement]

Heather Sellers is an accomplished poet. An award-winning author of books, short stories and essays.

And a disrupter.

“Writers and artists are welcoming of disruption,” says Sellers, director of USF’s creative writing program in the College of Arts and Sciences. “Artificial intelligence is a great disruption. I think we see our own role in society as disrupters, to ask questions and push out of the way how things have been done in order to move things forward in a new way.”

Sellers, who has taught at the college level for 30 years, including the past 10 at USF, says that at this point, AI cannot write a beautiful poem or create a novel with depth and meaning. But that day may be coming.

If it does, “It’s going to completely change our understanding of the human experience,” she says. “What I think is so important about the humanities being at an inflection point like this is our engagement with the ancient questions that have always governed our discipline: What is it to be human? What is it to feel? What is it that is important and to be cherished in the human experience that needs to be fed into AI and fed back to us so there’s a synergy in the relationship? It’s going to continue to evolve, but I don’t find that threatening.”

As she has experimented with generative AI tools, she has found they can’t do what poets do.

“AI is not able to render the complexity and depth of the human experience and put those into language that’s beautiful and meaningful,” Sellers says. “What’s exciting in the classroom is to be able to show students, when you ask AI to write a poem in the style of Robert Frost, why it isn’t able to do that. There are a lot of aspects of meaning-making and language and the human experience that are beyond its capabilities.”

It can be helpful with formulaic writing like letters of recommendation and program reviews, she notes. But while poetry and great novels use form, they are not formulaic.

AI stretches the imagination and can be a great collaborator, says McArthur Freeman II, an associate professor of animation and digital modeling in the School of Art and Art History.

He often employs technology for films and games in his creative efforts. He’s also a sculptor, which starts with digital models, and a painter.

“With AI, the question has to do with what we bring to the table,” he says. “AI has no feelings, it’s not invested, it has no desire. One type of AI can render images in very exquisite and beautiful ways with lighting and texture, but what it doesn’t do is generate ideas and a direction. That’s what artists bring, their perspective.”

AI has been shown to reflect bias, and that concerns Freeman. He recalls the experience he and his wife had when they asked a generative AI tool to produce images of 100 physicians.

“They were all white males and almost all of them had gray hair,” Freeman says. “It’s easy to look at it and think, ‘It’s a computer, it doesn’t have bias.’ All of these programs are trained off of the data that someone inputs.”

Sellers agrees that’s a problem, but it also creates an opportunity for her as a teacher.

“From an educational standpoint, it’s very exciting to feed AI a prompt that you know is going to generate something that’s blatantly biased,” she says.

She asked a generative AI program to translate “non-binary” into Spanish.

“It will say ‘no binario,’” the masculine form, she says. “If you ask it what that means, it says that depends on the gender of the person if it’s a male or a female. It just doesn’t know.

“But that’s one of the things students come to a university for, to learn critical thinking, to be able to slow down and assess. I don’t think it’s any different than the way we’ve been asking students to always consider the source since they were in fourth grade. It’s a source and it has incredible weaknesses. Bias is baked into everything, and this is a great opportunity to bring awareness to bias and authorship and ownership.”

Noting fears of widespread use of AI by students to cheat, Freeman says, “We have a responsibility to prepare students to adapt and compete in a world that will be utilizing AI after they graduate. Rather than focusing solely on restricting its use, we need to find new strategies to employ AI as part of the learning process.”

New technologies can be useful tools and facilitate new ways of thinking, he says.

“They prompt us to ask questions like, ‘How can AI enrich our understanding of the creative process and our role in it? What can it enable us to learn that was less accessible before? What do we need to strengthen in our own education to better leverage andcollaborate with these tools?’”

AI, Freeman says, “can reveal things that we haven’t been able to readily perceive, which allows us the opportunity to learn to see new things.”


A high-fidelity mannequin lies in a hospital bed while two nursing students practice listening to its “heartbeat” and other vital signs.

College of Nursing Dean Usha Menon says AI could improve training simulators, such as this child mannequin being used by USF student nurses.

Usha Menon recalls a moment early in her career while working with a more experienced nurse in a hospital maternity ward. Her mentor looked down at a tiny patient and told Menon that something was about to happen with this baby.

“I said, ‘How do you know? That baby looks perfectly fine,’” Menon says. “And she said, ‘Well, the hair on the back of my neck is standing up.’’’

Years later as a cardiac care nurse, Menon would sometimes find herself hovering around certain patients’ rooms, braced for a crisis. “I couldn’t quite say why. It was just a feeling.”

That is what generative artificial intelligence cannot mimic or replace.

“When we think about machine capabilities, how do you program for that extensive experience and the gut feeling that humans bring to a situation?” asks Menon, dean of the USF College of Nursing and senior associate vice president of USF Health. “I don’t think you can.”

While Menon and other medical professionals say AI has its limits, they agree it’s already providing benefits. As demand for health care overwhelms the supply of providers, they welcome AI taking over administrative chores and other tasks that don’t require their expertise.

“We have an aging and sicker population, particularly here in the Tampa Bay region. We have 1,000-plus people a day moving into the state, and our ability to deliver care is increasingly stretched thin,” says Dr. Nishit Patel, MD ’10, a professor in the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine, vice president of medical informatics for USF Tampa General Physicians, and vice president and chief medical informatics officer at Tampa General Hospital. “We have to figure out, how do you serve those additional needs with the same or less of a workforce?”

The COVID pandemic accelerated the development and use of tools like USF Health’s patient portal, MyChart, which streamlines communications, freeing providers for more hands-on care. Patients use MyChart to schedule appointments, message with providers and request prescription refills, all from home.

“We went from about 330,000 patient portal messages pre-pandemic, in 2019, to almost 900,000 last year,” Patel says. “You look at tools like generative AI because the promise of what’s there is to solve a problem that seemed impossible just a couple of years ago.”

Imagine AI sorting through patients’ medical records.

“We have tons of valuable information captured in your electronic health record, but many of those valuable insights are hidden away from physicians because of the sheer volume,” Patel says. “Generative AI has the potential to scrape the entirety of a patient’s chart and provide me with a high-yield summary of all of the key events and results since I last saw the patient.”

It doesn’t replace providers’ decision-making, Patel says, rather, it allows them to make better decisions more quickly.

For example, at Tampa General Hospital, surgical patients get speedier access to specialized nursing care thanks to AI.

“When a patient is coming in for surgery, we have to think about what happens after the procedure, including how long they will need to be in a post-anesthesia care unit (PACU), if they will need to stay in the hospital afterwards and which type of specialized unit they need to be placed into for that type of surgery,” Patel says. “Bed planning and capacity planning are incredibly complex activities that have historically required a lot of time and generally occurred the morning of the procedure.”

TGH has developed predictive models that have shortened PACU hold times by 28%, reduced bed planning time by 83% and shifted bed planning to days before the procedure. They have a 95% accuracy rate.

“What this means for patients is that we have made all the necessary planning for their successful recovery before they even step foot into the operating room,” Patel says.

But will the day come when algorithms make medical decisions?

“The fundamental practice of medicine remains the same,” Patel says. “Medical decision-making still occurs at the cross section of data, experience and training, and that does not change with AI.”

In psychiatry, Dr. Ryan Wagoner, MBA ’22, has not seen widespread adoption of AI beyond patient scheduling. But he sees its potential. An associate professor and division chief of the Morsani College of Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences, Wagoner says AI may one day offer limited help in treating mental illness.

Primary care doctors, who treat most “straightforward” issues such as depression and anxiety disorders, might find AI’s algorithms useful in prescribing medications, Wagoner says. But for more complicated problem, patients will still need people.

“Especially in psychiatry, very often people do not want to tell a computer ‘Here’s why I’m feeling so awful about something’ or ‘Here’s this unusual experience that I’m having,’” Wagoner says. “They want a human being to be able to relate to and provide some empathy to understand that shared human experience.”

If someone in a fragile emotional state seeks help from a chatbot and it responds inappropriately, what will be the impact? he asks. Mental-health professionals might also say the wrong thing, but they can read patients’ cues and switch gears.

“There are some stops in there that humans have whenever they see another individual’s emotional state headed in a certain way,” Wagoner says. “A chatbot won’t have that.”

AI can be an amazing tool with great potential to assist in health care, he says.

“But I’m not looking for AI to replace what I do anytime soon.”


Is generative AI coming for your job?

Maybe. Maybe not.

The past year’s rapid growth of such tools as ChatGPT, Google Bard, Bing Chat and Dall-E2 has led to widespread speculation about which workers they may one day replace — and which new career options they may create.

Distinguished University Professor Sudeep Sarkar describes generative AI as “a computing technology that is going to unleash the human potential. It is a tool that’s going to accelerate innovation and creativity.”

Sarkar chairs USF’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering and is co-director of the USF Institute for Artificial Intelligence + X. The “X,” he explains, can apply to a wide variety of disciplines — business, biology, finance, public health, for example. Sarkar also is a member of the university’s strategic planning group that’s developing guidelines for the use of AI in teaching, learning and USF operations.

The technology has remarkable potential to transform work. But, Sarkar says, “I haven’t seen companies saying, ‘We are going to get rid of this job because generative AI can do it.’

“What’s going to happen is that the nature of some jobs will morph,” he adds. “Some jobs will become larger in scope, while for other jobs, the nature of the work will shift.”

USF Innovative Education, working with faculty in the College of Engineering, has created an Artificial Intelligence Certificate program. It is fully online, catering to the needs of working adults seeking to upskill or reskill to advance their careers. Students learn how to design and deploy AI for real-world applications.

Sidney Fernandes, vice president of information technology and chief information officer at USF, says that when it comes to the impact of AI on jobs, “There is no one-size-fits-all answer.”

There may be new opportunities in AI research and development, as well as positions focused on compliance security and ethical and responsible AI implementation. He also noted the executive order issued by President Joe Biden in late October regarding AI regulation and the need for transparency, suggesting the need for new skill sets in legal compliance and information technology.

Existing jobs that might be dramatically affected by AI include those involving repetitive tasks or processes that can be automated. Examples include data entry, some aspects of customer service, as well as entry-level white-collar jobs from technology, to legal, to human resources and health care.

“In all of these cases, the jobs will not go away,” Fernandes says. “Rather, AI will be something of a tool for creating more efficiencies and better outcomes, as long as the users of the tools have a firm understanding of the limitations. 

“There will be the need for a human to review, make judgments and ensure that we do not ever trust the AI answers.”