AFRL guest speaker presents a practical view of artificial intelligence Published Feb. 12, 2020 By Mary Pacinda Air Force Research Laboratory WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Fear of the unknown can often cripple rational thinking. And one such unknown today is artificial intelligence. Is it right to be afraid of AI? Or is this just an irrational fear of the unknown? To make artificial intelligence more understandable to its workforce, the Air Force Research Laboratory's Materials and Manufacturing Directorate invited Dr. Erick Brethenoux to explain how it all works and how we all can expect to benefit from it in the future. Brethenoux specializes in machine learning, artificial intelligence and applied cognitive computing on the AI team at Gartner, Inc., a consulting firm AFRL information technology uses for help with its mission-critical priorities. To begin his talk, Brethenoux reassured his audience that artificial intelligence doesn’t really exist. “Artificial intelligence is a set of computer techniques that simulate cognitive processes,” said Brethenoux. “Computers store and compute, that’s all. They do not ‘understand’ anything.” With the hope of having put to rest at least some preconceived suspicions concerning artificial intelligence, he went on to explain how industry and government — as well as households and individuals — use it today and what we might look forward to for future uses. Because of today’s open communication and ease of publishing and distributing the results of scientific research, many disciplines are overwhelmed with information. The amount of data is so great that it is beyond human capabilities to sift through it and make good use of it. That’s where AI comes in: in most cases, it’s the best possible research assistant. For example, with 12,000 diseases in the world and a volume of medical knowledge that doubles every five years, doctors are benefiting from AI like IBM’s super computer Watson to help with diagnoses. But is Watson actually intelligent? Or just a sophisticated data processor? Brethenoux pointed out that this ability to sort through vast amounts of data in a very short time makes AI a great assistant in laboratories like those at AFRL. AI is able to search through enormous amounts of information about known materials as a means for creating new materials with specific properties needed for new applications. It can repeat this process over and over, with each candidate new material immediately made and tested as it is discovered. With AI, both the screening and the testing process is magnitudes faster than even a lab full of technicians could manage. Dr. Jordan Kaiser, a research scientist who works with AI in AFRL’s chemistry foundry, was one of several Air Force technologists who attended Brethenoux’s presentation. "Dr. Brethenoux brought to light that just because you are using AI doesn't mean you have to take advantage of every capability it offers,” said Kaiser. “From a chemical reaction standpoint, you can envision telling the AI to change one thing about the reaction and it will set up the experiment and run it. Why use it at all? Because it can save a lot of time and energy." Kaiser is currently working to set up an artificial intelligence and machine learning capability for AFRL scientists, using the system to optimize the synthesis of small molecules and macromolecules. “The idea behind the ‘chem foundry,’” said Kaiser, “is to build an AI/ML synthetic capability for a variety of scientists working on diverse projects.” Although AI has many applications in the research laboratory, perhaps more important to the average person are its applications to everyday life. Even now, many are willingly and eagerly allowing AI to be a personal assistant, tending to routine tasks without needing to be told to. Brethenoux referred to this AI as the “autonomous agent,” and gave the example of a washing machine — available on the market today — that can order detergent without being so instructed and have it delivered to the house when supply is low. Mary Shelly, a member of the AI/ML “RXcelerate” team, said Brethenoux was invited to speak in order to bring more knowledge about artificial intelligence to a wider base of professionals working at AFRL. Most of the comfort involving AI lies in the labs where researchers are using it on the job every day. Her goal was to have Brethenoux allay some of the intimidation some people outside the labs may feel about this rapidly growing technology. Erick Brethenoux leads AI research at Gartner Inc., guiding organizations on the strategic use of AI techniques. His research focuses on advanced software modeling and man-machine collaboration. A pioneer in predictive analytics, Brethenoux is currently an adjunct professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is the primary scientific research and development center for the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 11,000 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit: www.afresearchlab.com.