NASA embraces IBM’s Watson for future space, aerospace technology development

IBM and NASA have had one of the longest, most successful relationships in the high-tech world and it looks like the future holds much the same.

While the relationship has its roots in the very beginnings of the space program as well as large-scale computing, its current incarnation in many cases revolves around the cognitive computing specialties found in IBM’s Watson system. 

The forthcoming movie Hidden Figures in fact shows some of the earliest IBM and NASA computing interactions. Hidden Figures follows a group of African-American female mathematicians who calculated flight trajectories on IBM computers for John Glenn's first orbital flight in 1962.

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Watson uses machine learning and natural language and image recognition to develop all manner of intelligent answers to tough challenges. The system has been successfully deployed in the healthcare industry where the system has become a trusted adviser to hospitals and research centers working for people fighting cancer. The CBS news program “60 Minutes” recently devoted a large segment on Watson and the success it has had in this battle (See more here).

Watson is also making inroads into cybersecurity. Most recently IBM bolstered the Watson for Cybersecurity project by adding 40 new enterprise IT companies to help develop the system to automate IT security duties and analyze the tons of alerts generated daily by security operations.

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NASA is now utilizing or testing a number of projects with Watson that will take the system into future space and aerospace directions.

Leading that charge is NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., where a couple of projects are helping NASA aerospace engineers research and develop new technologies.

“Watson digests as much research as it possibly can to help the NASA experts looking to develop complex hypotheses’,” said Chris Codella an IBM Distinguished Engineer with the Watson Group that works with the Langley team.

Codella says one of the projects is looking at how to get commercial airline technicians and pilots the most relevant information in real time. Watson takes in all manner of information from flight operations manuals and can make all of that data available in real-time.

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Another project has Watson-delivered information to help make decisions in flight operations centers, Codella said.

Some other potential NASA uses for Watson include:

  • To help research and develop big complex space missions like the long trip to Mars.
  • How to help study other long-duration space missions looking at everything from operations, maintenance, and perhaps even the healthcare of the astronauts on that mission.
  • Routine management of missions to the International Space Station

Earlier this year NASA wrote of future work with Watson: “We can imagine a ”Virtual/Intelligent Agent” that is a true collaborator with an expert in a human-machine partnership. Such a system might be able to read relevant scientific literature in a variety of foreign languages, understand mathematical equations and tables, and relate it to material in English. It might understand multimedia content: images, figures, formulae, and videos. And, most important, it might be able to provide direct answers or lists of possible answers to users’ questions (rather than just lists of potentially useful documents). In those cases, as in its current use for medical diagnosis, the system would provide not just a set of possible answers but also information about the evidence it used to arrive at them, so the human experts will have the information they need to evaluate the conclusions. The system would be a true collaborator in our future research and engineering development efforts.”

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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