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Evolutionary AI inspires Ph.D. student to shoot for the moon

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Posted November 6, 2019

Dual doctoral candidate and military veteran works on NASA grant related to artificial intelligence for missions to the moon and Mars.

Microchips, equation-decorated whiteboards and NASA coffee cups are all spread across Warrant Technologies’ Thinker Labs, which recently opened in Fountain Square Mall in downtown Bloomington.

The creative space is occupied by Derek Whitley, a fifth year Ph.D. candidate at Indiana University. Whitley is pursuing dual doctoral degrees in complex systems at the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering and cognitive science in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

While working on his Ph.D., he also has a full-time day job as a senior engineer at Warrant Technologies. And if that’s not enough, he is the principal investigator on a grant from NASA, working on artificial intelligence technology for future NASA missions to the moon and Mars.

Video by Mark Williams/Indiana University

The grant was awarded to Warrant Technologies and is part of NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program. Warrant Technologies, a certified Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business, is one of roughly 100 first-time recipients of a NASA SBIR grant.

Whitley may not get much sleep, but that’s OK with him. After graduating high school in Boonville, Indiana, Whitley joined the U.S. Navy, where he was drawn to computers and technology.

“Joining the Navy, I knew I wanted to be involved with computers, and being a cryptologic technician was my path to the field of advanced technology,” he said.

Following the Navy, Whitley moved to Bloomington to do software support for Naval Surface Warfare Center Crane and noticed one of the world’s best universities was in his backyard.

“I realized I need to go back to school,” Whitley said. “My research has grown as a result of having a full-time job and from being a part of a Ph.D. program, letting me have one foot in industry that allows me to be mindful of the tech world and one foot in academia where I’m paying attention to new papers and research that is emerging.”

One of Whitley’s Ph.D. advisors, Randall Beer, would agree with that sentiment.

“Derek’s work focuses on evolvable hardware — that is, integrated circuits that can be dynamically reconfigured by an evolution-like process in order to accomplish some task of interest,” said Beer, who is a professor of computer science, informatics and cognitive science at IU Bloomington. “Derek’s receipt of a grant through NASA to support his application of this approach is quite a testament to his entrepreneurial spirit.”

That entrepreneurial spirit led to the creation of Warrant Technologies’ Thinker Labs, with a hoped-for outcome of attracting other rising-star scientists to apply for similar grants and retain their talent in Indiana.

Warrant Technologies, founded in 2013, is a systems and software engineering company working primarily with Crane and the Department of Defense. The company also supports the state of Indiana in naval education training command and has 30 employees.

“We’re hoping that Thinker Labs will grow as an engine to both attract young scientists and give them an opportunity to work on some exciting projects,” said Michael Norris, president and CEO of Warrant Technologies. “At the same time, we want to draw in and attract the external market, both government and commercial, to leverage this talent.”

For now, Whitley will continue Phase I of his grant, focusing on creating artificial intelligence methods that do not rely on traditional computers, including artificial intelligence algorithms that “evolve” based on the needs of the technology. For his grant, Whitley proposed an electronic device with a minimal spatial footprint and extremely low power consumption.

“My research at IU is focused on creating new evolutionary artificial intelligence methods that do not execute in a traditional way,” Whitley said. “It’s effectively using AI to generate a special circuit that runs a different type of AI. It’s exciting technology.”

NASA feels the same way as it looks to advance the capabilities needed to land astronauts on the moon in five years and establish a sustainable presence there.

“We are excited about the entrepreneurial, innovative ideas that these small businesses are bringing to the table,” Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in NASA’s press release. “The technologies show great promise in helping NASA achieve its objectives across all mission areas, including our efforts to send American astronauts to the moon, and then on to Mars, while also providing a long-term boost to the American economy.”

Whitley hopes his work with NASA will also inspire others to shoot for the stars.

“This is cutting-edge technology, and exciting projects like this can help keep talent right here in Indiana,” he said. “Every part of the country has had some kind of economic boom that has struck it for some reason or another. Why can’t AI take place here in Indiana?”

Source: Indiana University, by Nicole Wilkins

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