Emerging TechnologyAILooking beyond chatbots: How NASA uses AI to search for life outside Earth

Looking beyond chatbots: How NASA uses AI to search for life outside Earth

Many brands are starting to experiment with artificial intelligence, but NASA has been on board for years. Looking forward, the space agency plans to use the technology to find life outside the Earth.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the technology where marketers expect the most growth over the next two years, according to Salesforce Research’s fourth annual State of Marketing report. AI analyzes data faster, helps brands improve personalization, powers chatbots and enhances PPC campaigns.

Many organizations are still learning the ropes with AI and figuring out how it can improve their business. NASA is not one of them. Not a brand in the traditional sense of the word, the space agency is more focused on maximizing what the technology is capable of.

AI-powered satellites process and analyze data, and communicate with each other. Using machine learning, they take photos and look for anomalies, presenting the most interesting ones to time-strapped scientists.

“In 2010, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in Iceland,” explains NASA’s Steve Chien. “We already had thermal analysis of the volcano before the first responders in Iceland even knew about the eruption. We can also discriminate between ice, ash flume and shadows, combining that data to determine the height of the ash and how vigorous the eruption was.”

Chien is a Senior Research Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology. Speaking at the AI Summit in New York, he discussed NASA’s next move with AI: looking for life outside Earth.

Researching the Red Planet

AI will be a staple of Mars 2020, the rover mission that will investigate “The Red Planet,” as Mars is known for the layer of iron dust covering its surface. Launching in 2020, the rovers have the capability to explore caves with dynamic coordination algorithms and reshuffle communication to preserve intelligence when some of the rovers inevitably die.

They can also address resource allocation, rescheduling systems to prioritize one project when another ends early.

“AI targeting allows scientists to specify very high-level requests about the particular size, texture and distribution of rocks,” adds Chien. “AI software can find the rocks and hit the laser on them, without hitting the rover. It burns off the iron dust so they can see the underlying minerals.”

Looking for life below the surface

Scientists used to believe light and photosynthesis were necessary to sustain life, but the general consensus has shifted. Today, many believe that life begins at the bottom of the ocean. Earth is the only planet known to have water at its surface; Jupiter, for example, is made entirely of gas. However, Jupiter’s moon Europa is thought to have an ocean.

“It’s the only hydrothermal vent under ice that we know of,” says Chien. “We can land on the surface of the moon and use AI to melt the icy crust, which would take about a year. Through submersion exploration, we can look for hydrothermal vents and what can be more exciting than finding life and knowing AI was essential?”

More than essential, AI is completely necessary. In addition to the costs and logistics (NASA estimates it would take about six years just to get there) Europa provides an extremely hostile environment. The fact that it would take a year to melt the icy surface says it all; the moon’s equator never gets warmer than -260 degrees Fahrenheit.

Wrapping up

Marketers are testing the waters with AI; Salesforce found that 51% intend to adopt the technology in the next two years. NASA is already there, having started utilizing AI before brands were even on Facebook.

But more than anything, AI complements JPL’s mantra: “We launch the spacecraft and hope it finds life there.”

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