Principal AI Engineer has Sights Set on Sustainable and Ethical AI


Headshot of Principal AI Engineer Derek Whitley

This blog is a part of our Making an Impact series, where we explore MetroStar’s employees, their passions, career paths, and inspirations. 

Every now and then, having your "head in the clouds" is the most important activity a person can do. In this case, one MetroStar employee has his head floating around the stratosphere. Derek, MetroStar’s Principal Artificial Intelligence (AI) Engineer, is a scientist hoping to leave Earth and space, a bit better than he found it.  

A Little Background 

Growing up near the bottom of the Hoosier State—Indiana—Derek graduated from high school and joined the U.S. Navy. From there he moved around from Chicago, to Florida, and Virginia. Then, after two active tours with the Navy, he pursued his two passions—the human consciousness and solving the energy crisis.  

“I always knew that as a scientist, I was going to dedicate my life to solving hard problems the world faced,” Derek said. “One of my passions is solving the energy crisis. We’re going to run out of fossil fuels eventually, so I thought about exploring a career in nuclear fusion. Although, I decided to follow my other passion—understanding the human consciousness—because I had more experience in computer programing. I learned to make machines solve the problems our mind's struggle to understand.”  

The stars aligned so that his current work in computer science is helping him tackle the energy crisis, too.

Tackling Real World Issues with AI and ML  

In a quest to further his knowledge, Derek enrolled at Indiana University Bloomington as a dual doctoral candidate in Cognitive Science and Complex Systems. This area of study allowed him to approach AI solutions that are integrated, aware, and self-learning. It was during his time working on his dissertation that he received a grant allowing him to solve problems in the stars.  

To land astronauts back on the moon in the next five years, NASA pursued sustainable and eco-conscious technology to accomplish this daunting task. Derek submitted his research on hardware-in-the-loop AI, also called evolvable hardware (reconfigurable computer circuits that can learn from its data, adapt, and not need to be replaced often). The research was chosen for NASA’s 2019 SBIR Program (Phase 1), and he became a Principal Investigator working on neuromorphic computing and design solutions.  

The Future is Driven by Data, Data, and More Data  

Data is like an atom; it’s practically everywhere at this point. A massive amount of data can be generated from a single individual, from cell phone use, social media, and more.

Being able to not only analyze data but learn its patterns and predict future outcomes is vital to the future of technology. It’s impossible for one human to sift through and comprehend copious amounts of data. That’s where computers, AI, and Machine Learning (ML) come in handy.  

  • AI enables machines to mimic human intelligence to make decisions and automate tasks (i.e., personal assistants like Siri or Alexa). 
  • ML is a subset of AI that allows computers to learn from their collected data to improve accuracy and predictions. (i.e., product recommendations on websites).  

Every day our actions are producing more and more data and it’s becoming too much for our current systems to process. In other words, we’re entering an era where humans are generating data faster than our current supercomputers can keep up.

“The more data you collect, the more computers you’ll need to process it, and due to the expiration of Moore's Law, the slower computers will become. They’ll become hotter and use more energy, too. We have a lot of data and not enough computers to handle it, which can become a massive issue for society,” Derick said.  

Computers help humans achieve real-time solutions based on our patterns. AI draws statistic-based information over a period of time and quickly informs users on solutions they want or need to know. For example, AI can be witnessed through your iPhone knowing you’re in a car, and the system prompting you your home is 22 minutes away. During your drive home, your iPhone may also prompt you to stop at a coffee shop you visit daily during a specific time frame, and how much time that stop will add to your trip. This example is a small-scale, data-driven impact that many of us experience almost every day. It sounds cool, but scientists and engineers are facing issues.

Beyond uses for the everyday user, the world’s scientists need computers to analyze and understand massive amounts of data to further their research. Data Scientists are exploring how to produce meaningful data, but also how to do so in a more cost-effective and sustainable way.

At NASA, scientists sought sustainable and eco-conscious technology to ensure deep learning on their satellites and advance spatial science discoveries. The agency needed satellites with spacefaring evolvable computer hardware that could overcome space, weight, and power (SWaP) constraints. 

Derek’s research explored architecting hardware that can undergo evolution and learn or evolve while in space. Satellites have physical limits and have a cap on their energy-expending ability. So, to generate faster, more accurate, and more complex data, a dynamic neural network model like Derek’s can be used. This type of model is low energy, fast, can participate in deep learning, and has a low spatial footprint.

AI and ML in Government  

Technology that focuses on ethical, explainable, and sustainable data collection is the future all industries are chasing. This evolution is important across the entire federal sector, not just for NASA. 

“AI and ML are here to stay and are going to be inserted into every department, division, and agency in the government. At MetroStar, we’re helping bring the defense and intel industry into the 21st century with modern, eco-conscious tools and technology,” Derek said.  

Not only are they going to be a part of the present and future, but explainable and ethical AI is critical to properly implementing these technology changes in the government.  

“Ethics has to be involved in every aspect of this process. People are inherently biased and can mistakenly add those biases into their technology, but we have to make sure we are teaching machines to learn and evolve in a non-biased way.”  

At MetroStar, it’s an exciting time to have these changes happening as the government model is expanding its focus on open source projects and pushing AI/ML technology to the forefront of solutions. 

Life isn’t always written in the stars, but Data Scientists—like Derek—are creating a new fate for the future of the industry and the world.  

Reach out to learn more about Derek, his research, or AI/ML work at MetroStar. 

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