August 18, 2020
Q. As a Senior Computer Scientist and AI subject matter expert at NASA’s Langley Research Center, you’ve worked on a number of exciting projects. Can you tell us about your work on the upcoming Artemis moon missions?
So, I play a smaller, consulting role on a couple of different aspects of the Artemis mission. In one capacity, I am looking at sensor data that reflects the kinds of measurements that we will see on-board the Orion spacecraft. I consult with subject-matter experts to help establish machine-learning models that will help with situational awareness of the spacecraft’s stability and stressors during operation.
In another capacity, I am consulting with the NASA IV&V team to better understand just how we can independently verify and validate autonomous systems, intended for spaceflight, that use machine learning or artificial intelligence. While we are currently focusing on systems intended for Artemis, this is a much larger issue. We need to be able to validate that a system behaves as intended, based on a set of requirements. There is a large library of methods for doing this kind of verification for previous generations of software. Before, one could easily define and map out all the ways that software can behave in an environment. However, with artificial intelligence models like neural networks, it becomes much more difficult to understand how software that leverages these kinds of models will behave, as they may make surprising decisions that were unanticipated by developers. This makes validation and verification of the software’s capacity to execute a mission a very difficult task.
Q. Before NASA, you worked in support of the Department of Defense and the Intelligence community for ten years, particularly in the realm of cyber security. With the 2020 elections around the corner, there’s sure to be an increased focus on cyber security challenges. Do you have any key takeaways from your time in the cyber security world as to how our society can best handle cyber threats in an election year?
As we often saw during my time in the DoD and IC, human users can often be the biggest cyber security vulnerability. A lot of work has gone into making things like electronic voting systems secure. And you will continue to see asymptotic improvements to those kinds of systems during and after this election. But the biggest vulnerability is the voting populace.
In particular, we are still trying to figure out social media’s role in our democratic discourse. And while we are trying to figure that out, that discourse is continuously being assaulted by external actors (i.e. Russia, Iran, China). Their efforts have only seemed to increase since the known incidences of 2016. We have already seen their attempts to stoke the fires of our national discourse this year, when it came to our discussions on COVID-19 and civil rights. So there is no reason to doubt that they will continue to lob nation-state backed social engineering attacks to continue to divide the populace. An old colleague used to say to me that, in war, advantage is created through strategy and technology. But it’s won by soldiers. If you take away enough of the enemy’s soldiers, or turn enough of them, you won’t even need to send your own.
And right now, in this “Cyber Cold War” (I’m sure someone will come up with a more clever name for what we are experiencing), our adversaries are creating soldiers out of not only bots, but the citizenry. Our democracy necessitates civil discussions, even for diametrically opposed viewpoints. Many of these bots seek to fan the flames of conversations that already have such opposing viewpoints, turning them into unproductive conversation and amplifying tribalism throughout the US. So the best thing that people can do to stave off this nuanced kind of cyber threat is to take inflammatory conversations offline and operate significantly less in public forums. While the social media companies should do more to address these issues, the only real way to improve this environment in time for this election is to starve the bots out (by ignoring them) and engaging in civil conversation through other channels.
Q. You are passionate about getting young students involved in STEM. What was your entry into your interest in the sciences? And how do you get a young person excited about science and technology, especially someone who might not have been exposed to real-life careers in STEM?
Ironically, my childhood love of art and literature were a big part of what drew me to science. I loved reading and parsing comic books, watching all sorts of science fiction shows, and getting my hands on any form of expressive media that would come out of our science institutions (NASA, Cleveland Science Center, etc.). Embracing these types of media at a young age always made me think about how aspects of the more fantastical stories that I ingested could be made real. And over time, I came to an understanding that STEM, as a whole, is the vehicle for investigating some of those possibilities, understanding whether they are viable or not, and then constructing the viable ones. I’m happy to see that science and science fiction media has only gotten better since I was a child.
As far as what it takes to “get young people excited,” it varies for different age ranges. Even for children that are not exposed to many real-life careers in STEM, most children are still very excited about all of the fantastic results of STEM that they see through many forms of media: from the latest gadget to the latest space launch. The issue for me isn’t “getting” young people excited, its trying to make sure that they are not “dissuaded” at some point along the way. And for me, that means giving children as many opportunities as possible to see the alternatives that are available within STEM. Getting as many scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians as possible, in front of a classroom is absolutely necessary in making sure children stay excited about STEM. That way, if their STEM career prospects start to seem bleak to them, based on their STEM experiences in their everyday life, we can hope that exposing them to those alternatives may steer them back on course.
For example, in many school districts in the US, elementary and middle school students typically have one teacher that teaches multiple subject matters to the students. If a student liked their science curriculum through the 4th grade, and then was not receptive of the 5th grade teacher’s methods of teaching science, dealing with that teacher’s methods for an entire year may do permanent damage in terms of the student’s enthusiasm for the subject. This can be mitigated by regularly introducing STEM professionals, or potentially additional full-time teachers (more than one to a class), to give that student a set of alternative views that may resonate more with them.
Q. You were recently selected to join the 2020 class of the Foundation’s Young Leaders program. What drew you to the program, and what are you most looking forward to during your time as a Young Leader?
Before 2018, I would not have seen myself as the right person for this type of program. However, in the last two years, I have worked significantly more on strategy and policy in my fields of expertise. And I took on similar roles for programs in two other countries. I developed a knack for having real, frank discussions that result in real action through these kinds of forums. With that said, through my adult life, I have had a strong, personal connection to France and the people in it. Now that I have more experience operating in this kind of environment, if I could take my pick of any country in the world to engage in this type of forum with, it is certainly France.
In my time as a Young Leader, I simply hope to build connections and make the program beneficial to everyone involved. While that sounds like a boilerplate response, I really want to make sure that people walk away from our discussions and forums with something and useful. We have a unique opportunity, anytime we get together, to dialogue with an extraordinary set of human beings. I look forward to making the most of that dialogue, and doing whatever I can to ensure that all the other participants benefit from it, as well.