Monday, June 22, 2015

2015-06-19: Autonomy Incubator Seminar Series Welcomes Professor Missy Cummings

This month, the Autonomy Incubator (AI) was thrilled to have Dr. Missy Cummings as the guest speaker in its eponymous monthly seminar series.  The title of her presentation was "Man Versus Machine or Man + Machine?" and she touched on a variety of topics from driverless cars to the semantics of "machine learning"

Dr. Cummings is quite literally a woman who needs no introduction; in addition to earning a place in history as one of the Navy's first female fighter pilot, her work with semi-autonomous flight has led her everywhere from an appearance on The Colbert Report to a TEDMED talk. You can watch her excellent 2013 guest spot on The Daily Show right here:

After ten years as a professor at MIT, Dr. Cummings recently moved to Duke University to lead the flagship Human and Autonomy Lab, or HAL. (Yes, she says; that's a pun.) Today's talk, "Man Versus Machine or Man + Machine," grappled with that junction of humans and autonomous machines.  How can the two best live in cooperation? How do we determine, in her words, "what should computers do and what should humans do?"

Cummings is a vocal advocate for a future in which humans and machines work together and she's working to show that this future is possible. Her team at MIT designed an interface that allows anyone to fly a semi-autonomous UAV with only three minutes of training. Humans, she said today, will always be part of the work that machines do because we have the capability to gain expertise, while machines won't be able to do the same for the foreseeable future. With expertise comes the ability to react to certain situations in ways that machines wouldn't necessarily know how to handle correctly. In the same vein, she disapproves of labels like "artificial intelligence" and "machine learning" for autonomous machines, because she views them as misleading.  What some call "intelligent" machines are just really good at pattern detection and rule following, she opined, not really capable of independent decision-making like a person would be.

Her work in recent years has included myriad applications of automation and autonomy, from making military IED detection trucks remote-controllable to keep soldiers safe, to helping park rangers in Gabon keep track of elusive forest elephant populations from the air, to fully automating the dump trucks in an Australian mine to prevent human-caused accidents and injury. Dr. Cummings is also contributing to the development of the Google driverless cars, although she herself remains skeptical of the idea: "Driverless cars scare me the most," she said, laughing.

After her talk, Dr. Cummings joined the AI team and colleagues for lunch in the Langley cafeteria followed by a tour of the high-fidelity flight simulators in Building 1268.  The day culminated with the AI team at the Autonomy & Robotics Center in Building 1222, where Javier and Bilal successfully increased the number of UAVs in their collaborative trajectory flight demo from four to six!

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