After some grueling and extensive research (and by that I mean I Googled him), the nervousness increased. I mean this man has a laundry list of credentials in science and technology that are so impressive Tony Stark would give him a high five. Come on, a PhD in Artificial Intelligence? That is the stuff dreams (and often superheroes) are made of, friends.
So it got me thinking. What do I ask that will allow me and my readers to get a glimpse into the real life of the Air Force’s top super scientist?
Naturally I took the most adult and professional route with this.
So if you were a mad scientist, what one thing or device would you create?
Well I’m actually a very happy scientist, so I don’t know how mad scientists think. *laughs*
So one of the things we ought to worry about are weapons of mass destruction. As you know, these could take the form of nuclear, chemical, and biological kinds of threats. There are lots of ways to counter that mad scientist, including much better intelligence, better readiness to deal with this, making our systems more robust and resilient. Even allowing us to fight through such a dastardly attack.
It’s always the case that there will always be bad people in the world and we are always going to need to defend against them.
Whoo! Well glad to know we have a strategy for that! Well now that we’ve got the most serious question out of the way, let’s try some of these.
So what does it mean to be the chief scientist of the United States Air Force?
Well it’s a time honored tradition. After WWII, Eisenhower came back and was shocked at the advances in technology that other forces had made, other countries had made; jet engines from the Germans, V2 rockets, etc. So right after the Air Force was created Theodore von Kármán – who was an aerospace scientist, was basically brought into the Air Force to operate at the senior most levels. So I’m a three-star equivalent. I’m the 33rd chief scientist.
I’m not the first Mark, I’m not the first computer scientist. I’m not even the first artificial intelligence scientist. I am however the very first chief scientist that was former uniformed personnel. I’m a former Air Force officer.
The chief scientist of the Air Force has this tradition of being brought in and hand selected by the chief to be brought into the service for a few years to help advance often strategic topics. So you act as the chief technical advisor to the secretary and the chief. Basically [the job of the chief scientist is] to educate, to guide, to alert, to provide strategic vectors for ways forward across the entire service.
So are you an advocate for scientists in the military?
I’m hesitant to use the word “advocate”. We are, by design, intended to be an independent objective adviser. So even though we all have personal biases and experiences that shape the way we see things, the chief scientist is expected to be someone who is evidenced-based, data driven, objective.
So yes we do advocate in the sense that I am the senior most voice for science in the Air Force, at the same time sometimes science is not always the solution. Sometimes it’s a cultural thing, it’s an organizational challenge, or it’s a funding challenge. Regardless, science should be the honest broker.
I see you have a doctorate in artificial intelligence. How did you decide to go in that direction and does that mean you work with robots (because seriously how cool would *that* be)?
I am a robot! *laughs*
You know, I know it sounds crazy but when I was in high school I knew that I wanted to study artificial intelligence. I think there’s something about science fiction that does inspire young scientists. But I think it also must have been that I was so fascinated with human intelligence.
Artificial intelligence, like computer science, is a really big field. While robots are often times the more popular instantiation of AI, it means lots of things. It’s reflective in the means of communicating. Understanding or speaking language or reading and writing. So robots often times embody much of intelligence but we have intelligence in a lot of things. Just in your automatic breaking system you have an intelligent sensor that responds to the way you break and the surface conditions of the road such that you don’t have to pump your breaks anymore. The point is AI is in part sometimes embedded intelligence in the devices we have and in other times it’s embedded in robots.
In the Air Force we have a kind of AI in that sense. We call that autonomy. Our satellites now to go into a sleep mode to protect themselves if they sense danger. Our aircraft can take off and land automatically. We have automatic navigation. We have automated defenses in our computing infrastructure.
In longer term we’re working on things that will allow our systems not only to self-repair but to also self-assemble, to actually self-organize. That’s the kind of social intelligence people don’t always think about. You know when people think of robots they think of individual things that go out and shine their shoes or drive the Enterprise. They don’t think of things that can actually go out and organize other robots. And that is frightening to some people, and certainly has to be controlled, but it’s also the case that there are scientists who are working on not only self-assembly, self-repair, self-organization [robots].
I think that’s a particular value of AI. We originally thought, “Oh we’ll replace humans”. And then everyone’s like, “Oh my goodness the robots are going to take over”. And there’s still people that talk about the singularity, you know, they worry about this. But what I am continually inspired by is human creativity, innovation, improvisation, socialization. All these things that are innately human that I think could be frankly amplified by artificial intelligence.
Can you tell me about some of the new cool technologies and inventions that are being developed right now in the Air Force?
There are a lot. There are things that range from the very, very practical. Our advent program which is a new engine we’re about to test in FY13. Two companies are both creating new jet engines which have third flow which means instead of having conventional 2 flows of air going through the engine they have a third that can be turned on or off. This will allow us to save energy. You know we spent 9 billion dollars on fuels last year in the Air Force. This is a technology that will result in on the average 25% more efficient jet engines. And interestingly both of these companies will roll back those innovations into the commercial base so imagine paying a quarter less for your plane ticket somewhere down the road.
Another example is that we’re working with something called cold atoms. One of the problems in the Department of Defense is our dependence on global positioning systems. And it’s both a great capability but also a great vulnerability. So what we’re developing is alternatives to GPS. What cold atoms do is by using a laser you’re basically able to remove a lot of the thermal artifacts of an atom in a small container, which then we can use to essentially measure the movement of that atom as the vessel in which it moves, and also measure the time based on the movement of that atom. So making that cheaper and faster and accurate is something that [we're] doing. This will revolutionize global positioning. Imagine someday, 10, 20 years down the road, your individual device knows where it is all the time without reference to any global satellite.
What’s one thing that you’re hoping to see or accomplish during your tenure as chief scientist of the Air Force?
Energy Horizons [is one], which was our vision for where energy needs to go in the air and space and for the ground in the Air Force. Also cyber vision. Our vision for the assured cyber advantage. To make sure we have both ensured and empowered operators, and that those operators are operating in cyberspace in a fashion that’s both resilient and secure and agile. As well as ensuring that they have trusted foundations of hardware and software. So energy and cyber are two of the key things that I think we’ve helped with during my tenure.
And I just have one last question for the great Dr. Maybury. Quite possibly the most important of all.
Let’s talk a little about science fiction, shall we? Has science fiction influenced any inventions in the military of late?
It is delightful to hear about your interest in science fiction and our challenge is to make that a reality!
Oh wonderful! *squeals with geek delight*
*Laughs* What’s great about science fiction – and the Doctor is a great example of this – is that it forces us to imagine things that are unimaginable. And you look at something and you think, “Oh that can’t happen”. And then all of a sudden you realize “Oh wait a minute, we have global positioning”. We thought about global positioning back in the 50s and 60s. That’s when science first started thinking about these things. So sometimes it takes a long time for these things to become a reality, but science fiction does play an important role with the forces to think beyond the today.
When I asked him for his closing remarks Dr. Maybury said, “Science doesn’t have all the answers, but it has many answers.”
Those are the kind of inspiring words that I want to put in front of a starry backdrop and splash all over Pinterest. In fact I might just do that, unless you people beat me to it.
I think what impressed me most about Dr. Maybury was that you can actually hear the love and enthusiasm for his work resonate in his voice. That coupled with his dedication to seeing future generations share the same passions he does are – in this humble writer’s opinion – what set Dr. Maybury chiefly (pun intended) above the rest.
Besides, I think the world could use more happy scientists, don’t you?
Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science. She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.
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