Evolutionary AI inspires Ph.D. student to shoot for the moon

Dual doctoral candidate and military veteran works on NASA grant related to artificial intelligence for missions to the moon and Mars

Microchips, equation-decorated whiteboards and NASA coffee cups are all spread across Warrant Technologies' Thinker Labs, which recently opened in Fountain Square Mall in downtown Bloomington.

Derek WhitleyView print quality image
Derek Whitley. Photo courtesy of the Office of the Vice President for Research

The creative space is occupied by Derek Whitley, a fifth year Ph.D. candidate at Indiana University. Whitley is pursuing dual doctoral degrees in complex systems at the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering and cognitive science in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

While working on his Ph.D., he also has a full-time day job as a senior engineer at Warrant Technologies. And if that's not enough, he is the principal investigator on a grant from NASA, working on artificial intelligence technology for future NASA missions to the moon and Mars.

The grant was awarded to Warrant Technologies and is part of NASA's Small Business Innovation Research program. Warrant Technologies, a certified Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business, is one of roughly 100 first-time recipients of a NASA SBIR grant.

Whitley may not get much sleep, but that's OK with him. After graduating high school in Boonville, Indiana, Whitley joined the U.S. Navy, where he was drawn to computers and technology.

"Joining the Navy, I knew I wanted to be involved with computers, and being a cryptologic technician was my path to the field of advanced technology," he said.

Following the Navy, Whitley moved to Bloomington to do software support for Naval Surface Warfare Center Crane and noticed one of the world's best universities was in his backyard.

"I realized I need to go back to school," Whitley said. "My research has grown as a result of having a full-time job and from being a part of a Ph.D. program, letting me have one foot in industry that allows me to be mindful of the tech world and one foot in academia where I'm paying attention to new papers and research that is emerging."

Scenes from Thinker Labs, where IU Ph.D. student and full-time senior engineer Derek Whitley is the principal investigator on a grant from NASA, working on artificial technology for future NASA missions to the moon and Mars. Photos courtesy of the Office of the Vice President for Research

One of Whitley's Ph.D. advisors, Randall Beer, would agree with that sentiment.

"Derek's work focuses on evolvable hardware -- that is, integrated circuits that can be dynamically reconfigured by an evolution-like process in order to accomplish some task of interest," said Beer, who is a professor of computer science, informatics and cognitive science at IU Bloomington. "Derek's receipt of a grant through NASA to support his application of this approach is quite a testament to his entrepreneurial spirit."

That entrepreneurial spirit led to the creation of Warrant Technologies' Thinker Labs, with a hoped-for outcome of attracting other rising-star scientists to apply for similar grants and retain their talent in Indiana.

Warrant Technologies, founded in 2013, is a systems and software engineering company working primarily with Crane and the Department of Defense. The company also supports the state of Indiana in naval education training command and has 30 employees.

"We're hoping that Thinker Labs will grow as an engine to both attract young scientists and give them an opportunity to work on some exciting projects," said Michael Norris, president and CEO of Warrant Technologies. "At the same time, we want to draw in and attract the external market, both government and commercial, to leverage this talent."

For now, Whitley will continue Phase I of his grant, focusing on creating artificial intelligence methods that do not rely on traditional computers, including artificial intelligence algorithms that "evolve" based on the needs of the technology. For his grant, Whitley proposed an electronic device with a minimal spatial footprint and extremely low power consumption.

"My research at IU is focused on creating new evolutionary artificial intelligence methods that do not execute in a traditional way," Whitley said. "It's effectively using AI to generate a special circuit that runs a different type of AI. It's exciting technology."

NASA feels the same way as it looks to advance the capabilities needed to land astronauts on the moon in five years and establish a sustainable presence there.

"We are excited about the entrepreneurial, innovative ideas that these small businesses are bringing to the table," Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in NASA's press release. "The technologies show great promise in helping NASA achieve its objectives across all mission areas, including our efforts to send American astronauts to the moon, and then on to Mars, while also providing a long-term boost to the American economy."

Whitley hopes his work with NASA will also inspire others to shoot for the stars.

"This is cutting-edge technology, and exciting projects like this can help keep talent right here in Indiana," he said. "Every part of the country has had some kind of economic boom that has struck it for some reason or another. Why can't AI take place here in Indiana?"

Nicole Wilkins is executive director of research communications in the Office of the Vice President for Research.

Description of the following video:

[Audio: music begins]

[Video: Dynamic headshot of Derek Whitley and motion graphic title appears]

Whitley speaks in voiceover: After I returned back from the Navy and getting my undergraduate degree coming back to Indiana and working here at Crane ...

[Video: Whitley is shown speaking, corresponding to the voiceover, and title fades away]

Whitley speaks in voiceover: ... I've seen that there is an enormous amount of talent in Indiana.

[Video: Slow motion of Whitley's hands pointing at his technological hardware.]

Whitley speaks in voiceover: There's a whole lot of potential to create technology, to create business, to grow Indiana in a very positive way.

[Video: Whitley is at his desk talking to Mike Norris (without audio of actual clip)]

Whitley speaks in voiceover: I looked into cognitive science to kind of bridge that gap of, alright ...

[Video: Whitley is shown speaking, corresponding to the voiceover]

Whitley speaks in voiceover: complex systems will give me the mode of thinking that I want to be able to ascribe to my scientific research but ...

[Video: Slow motion of technological hardware on Whitley's desk]

Whitley speaks in voiceover: ... cognitive science is going to fill the gap of how do I make cerebral systems.

[Video: Mike Norris is shown speaking, corresponding to the voiceover, as motion graphic title appears]

Norris speaks in voiceover: We are a systems and software engineering company.

[Video: Camera swings from Whitley's computer screens to show Norris standing while listening to Whitley speak]

Norris speaks in voiceover: Our primary customer is NSWC Crane, the DOD, Department of Defense.

[Video: Mike Norris is shown speaking corresponding to the voiceover]

[Video: Sweeping slow motion from left to right of Whitley's mobile robot on a table]

Norris speaks in voiceover: We support naval sea systems command, naval air systems command.

[Video: Slow motion of Norris and Whitley standing next to each other smiling]

Norris speaks in voiceover: We also support the state of Indiana and Naval Education Training command.

[Video: Whitley is shown speaking, corresponding to the voiceover]

Whitley speaks in voiceover: An SBIR is a small business innovation research grant.

[Video: Sweeping left to right of Whitley speaking to someone out of frame]

Whitley speaks in voiceover: Which is a type of grant issued to 'small businesses that can actually compete and perform the work,' technological scientific work, that some agency may want done.

[Video: Slow-motion sweeping left to right of Whitley's mobile robot on table]

[Video: Slow-motion panning of Whitley's technological hardware]

[Video: Whitley is shown speaking corresponding to the voiceover]

Whitley speaks in voiceover: So for example, NASA doesn't have the manpower to go and develop all of the technology that they need developed for shuttle, for robots, for everything.

[Video: Slow motion of space shuttle launch]

[Video: NASA robot]

[Video: Slow motion of Whitley's hands pointing at his technological hardware]

Whitley speaks in voiceover: So they'll issue an SBIR 'so that other companies can go and develop that work, develop that technology, for them.

[Video: Slow-motion sweeping left to right of Whitley's mobile robot on table]

[Video: Whitley is shown speaking corresponding to the voiceover]

[Video: Rotating shot left to right of Whitley talking to someone off screen]

Whitley speaks in voiceover: Now we have this grant from NASA to study and research this exact work.

[Video: Whitley is shown speaking corresponding to the voiceover]

[Video: Slow motion push in on Whitley's technological hardware]

Whitley speaks in voiceover: This allows me the bandwidth to give my direct attention, my day job attention and my academic attention to my research.

[Video: Slow motion from left to right of Whitley sitting down looking up at Norris]

[Video: Whitley is shown speaking corresponding to the voiceover]

[Video: Slow motion of technological hardware]

[Video: Mike Norris is shown speaking corresponding to the voiceover]

Norris speaks in voiceover: We're hoping that the Thinker Lab will turn into and grow as an engine to both attract these young scientists and bring them in, give them an opportunity to work on some exciting projects ...

[Video: Slow motion panning of Thinker Lab logos on windows and doors of Thinker Labs]

[Video: Young man and woman sitting together looking at and working on robotics]

[Video: Young man looking through an opening of technology with safety glasses on]

[Video: Mike Norris is shown speaking corresponding to the voiceover]

[Video: Low angle of Whitley and Norris smiling and walking toward camera]

Norris speaks in voiceover: and at the same time draw in and attract the external market, both government and commercial, to come in and leverage that talent.

[Video: Norris and Whitley having a conversation]

[Video: Norris is shown speaking corresponding to the voiceover]

[Video: Slow motion of Whitley smiling and laughing]

Whitley speaks in voiceover: There's no reasons that scientists, engineers, can't stick around and help grow Indiana.

[Video: Whitley is shown speaking corresponding to the voiceover]

Whitley speaks in voiceover: Why can't AI take place here in Indiana?

[Video: Indiana University Brand logo and words "Indiana University iub.edu" appear then fade out]

[Audio: Music fades out]

Video by Mark Williams, Office of the Vice President for Research