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Cognitively Speaking

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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Paolitto, Ph.D.

Before the iPhone, Google, and the internet -- there were the Commodore VIC-20, Timex Sinclair, Bowmar Brain and original TI-30 (you can look up the latter items with your iPhone using Google and the internet!). And apples only grew on trees. But even before all of these, there was Katherine Johnson, “The Human Computer,” who was born at the twilight of World War I and died last month [February 24, 2020] at age 101.

Katherine was hired by the agency which would eventually become NASA in 1953 where she worked as an aerospace technologist until her in retirement in1986. Before the Shuttle program, the ISS, Neil & Buzz and the Apollo moon landings, Project Gemini and space walks, there were NASA’s original Mercury astronauts -- the magnificent 7 -- the guys with “the right stuff”.

Katherine Johnson was there for all of it. On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard was about to become the United States first man in space. Sitting crouched on his back in the Freedom 7 Mercury capsule (about the size of the backseat of a ’61 Volkswagen Beetle) for four hours after a series of countdown delays, he impatiently uttered the iconic phrase “Let’s light this candle”! The ‘candle’ lifted off and followed a ballistic arc above and beyond the earth’s atmosphere boldly going to where no American man had gone before. Everything of course had to be precise and exact and meticulously calculated, including not just the flight trajectory but his descent after the capsule’s parachutes deployed so the recovery crew could quickly and precisely find him in that tiny body of water, the Atlantic Ocean.

Shepard’s life depended on everything to be perfect. All of these calculations were worked and checked out by Johnson -- by hand.

In 1962, Astronaut John Glenn was not just doing a “go up and down” flight, he was going to orbit the Earth three times. The complexity of this endeavor necessitated the construction of a worldwide communications network, linking tracking around the world. The archaic “stone knives and bearskins” computers of the day had been pre-programmed with equations that would control the orbital trajectory of Glenn’s mission. But Glenn wasn’t biting. The early astronauts were less than cautiously optimistic in trusting their lives to the cathode ray tubes and transistors of the electronic computers of the day, which were prone to blackouts and glitches (if you have Comcast as your cable provider you know what I mean). During the preflight checklist, Glenn demurred on launching unless the flight controllers specifically got Johnson to “check the numbers” by hand to verify the computers work to make sure they were not only correct, but safe: “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go!”

Katherine also went to the moon. She worked out the calculations that coordinated Apollo's LEM (lunar excursion module) liftoff from the moon and subsequent docking with the command module which was orbiting miles above (kind of an important part of the mission!). She worked on the space shuttle program and was even involved in the planning stages for a hypothetical mission to Mars. In 2015, she was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States. In 2017 NASA honored her by naming its new research center after her, The Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility.

This week, let us all try to do something to honor Johnson’s memory, and intelligence. When you work on your taxes, pay a bill, balance your checkbook, or calculate the tip when you go out for dinner, put away your iPhone, calculator, slide rule or abacus. DO THE MATH! Do it in your head, by hand, or count on your fingers. Use an eraser if needed. Add, subtract, multiply and divide -- these words are verbs -- they require an action. C’mon, you can do -- you’ve done it before (I hope). Like Katherine, take part in that one small step for man, one giant leap for womankind.

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> Katherine Johnson has been a permanent member of our revolving Real Smart People

Hall of Fame since its inception on our web site in 2018.

  • Writer's pictureAnthony Paolitto, Ph.D.

Fallen hero Dr. Major John Pryor

December 25, 2008. Christmas Day to many on the planet, a day celebrated by billions as representative of salvation come into the world. To many others it might simply provide a venue for multiple celebrations, presents from Santa, elaborate feasts, and family time. To most, at the least, it is a day off.

Fortunately, not everyone is home deciding which presents need to be returned the next day. Many are on call or actively working. Hospitals are operating, airports are open, first-responders are as reliable as ever, and the NBA has a game on CBS.

More fortunately, our freedoms are still being protected -- unbeknownst, unaware and unnoticed by most of us. We still needed to be protected from the bad guys, and, I’m sure I will catch some flack from some for referring to terrorists as “bad guys.” Whatever. Operation Iraq Freedom represented a U.S. led coalition of forces that ultimately resulted in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime. And, even more fortunately, the U.S. military had a number of very exceptional men and women there committed to doing just that.

One of those men was Major John J. Pryor of Moorestown, NJ with the 1st Medical Detachment, Forward Surgical Team. Major Pryor, a trauma surgeon with the United States Army Reserve Medical Corp was on his second tour of duty, having deployed in Mosul, Iraq just 19 days earlier. He was a Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient. In “civilian life” Dr. Pryor was Trauma Program Director and Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital and School of Medicine. More importantly, to him, he was a husband and father to a daughter and two sons.

Unfortunately, Major Pryor, 42, was killed that Christmas Day.

Shrapnel from a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) from over 1,000 yards away struck him, killing him instantly. I am privy to more of the information than was available in the media about this because the person walking next to Major Pryor on the way to a Christmas meal was my wife’s brother, who had just left him to retrieve a camera fifteen seconds earlier. Fortunately, my brother-in-law was unharmed. Most unfortunately, there are too many other fine men and women like Dr. Pryor who met --and continue to meet -- similar fates.

Fortunately, technology evolves in a myriad of positive directions. Artificial Intelligence continues to enrich us with the advent of life saving technology and devices that will someday, sooner or later, give us solutions -- yes, even cures -- to the most historic of diseases. Can similar sentiments be envisioned on how we perceive our national defense -- or, better put, deterrence? In the example of Major Pryor, wouldn't it have been desirable if terrorist combatants (who by the way don’t play by the rules) would have never even been able to launch that fatal RPG, along with countless others, in the first place? Better for Major Pryor, better for his family, better for the soldiers he could have saved on the battlefield, and better for the countless others he would have saved in his civilian trauma ER had he survived.

Project Maven is a U.S. Department of Defense project which, in most simple language, uses machine learning to distinguish people and objects captured in video from drones. It is an algorithmic - image - analysis driven program utilizing AI to interpret video images utilizing facial recognition technology, which can be used -- for example -- to accurately identify and target enemy combatants aiming RPG's from long distances. Translation: if the technology had existed in 2008 and had been deployed it would have identified and taken out the enemy combatant that fired the RPG that killed Major Pryor before the weapon ever had a chance to be launched.

Some companies (incredulously in my eyes) balk at working on this kind of technology. (One -- a very big one everyone has heard of -- even ended their contract with the Department of Defense after employees successfully petitioned them to pull out because it involved “warfare technology.” None of the employees I assume were related to Dr. Pryor, or could have benefitted from his medical contributions). One company however, that assumed both the moral and patriotic mantle to protect our troops is Clarifai, an AI visual recognition startup. As Clarifai’s CEO and founder Matt Zeiler so succinctly put it regarding their decision to engage with the Department of Defense and Project Maven: “After careful consideration, we determined that the goal for our contribution to Project Maven — to save the lives of soldiers and civilians alike— is unequivocally aligned with our mission … of putting our resources toward society’s best interests, and that includes America’s security.”

Moral opposition to engage in projects, work place or otherwise, is certainly legitimate. Mischaracterization because of social or political opposition is not. The internet, GPS, weather radar, penicillin, jet engines, canned food and even duct tape (or is it really duck tape?) are all products derived from military endeavors. Hardly “warfare technology.” Airplanes were used to attack Pearl Harbor and the World Trade Center -- should we have petitioned the Wright Brothers to stop fiddling around in their bicycle shop with their project? [I sure hope they still teach who the Wright Brothers were in schools, but probably not.] The point is, we are always going to have the “bad guys,” or some parties taking advantage of what was intended for good and using it for evil. The focus instead, needs to be on the ‘good guys’ -- the John Pryor's of this world -- those working on the protective applications of Project Maven and similar endeavors utilizing “AI for Good.” We at Cognitive Recruiting are very proud to have been a part in assisting Califai in finding some of their Real Smart People to assist on Project Maven!

Major/Dr. John Pryor certainly left this world a better place. We needed him longer. Think of the people he saved. Think of those he is now not able to save on his operating table. Could this have changed history? We will never know … (more on this theme in my next blog entry).

It is apt to finish here with a favorite quote from Albert Schweitzer that hung on Dr. Pryor's office wall which captured his spirit. It begins with "Seek always to do some good, somewhere …".

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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Paolitto, Ph.D.

No matter how interesting your current job may be -- or how important you know (or hope) it is – do you ever wonder about the longer-term impact of what you are doing? Well then, think of these groups of scientists working nearly 50 years ago in the early 1970’s:

Using computing capabilities that to us today would seem as the modern equivalent of “stone knives and bearskins” (an entire roomful of overheating computers had less power than your old iPhone 3), the fruition of their work was realized with the launching of Voyager 2 in 1977.

In November, 2018, 41 years later, Voyager 2 -- still going strong – reached another milestone, crossing our solar systems heliosphere [basically the edge of our solar system and our sun’s magnetic field] some 11 billion miles away -- about 3-4 times further than Pluto! (Which, by the way, ignore the Astronomers -- every Planetary Scientist worth their salt understands it really is a planet!). Last month (November 2019) a series of papers was released reporting upon what Voyager 2 observed at the boundary of the solar wind’s bubble and beyond. All five of Voyagers sensors are still in working order, submitting data to scientists such as solar ions, cosmic rays and plasma density in interstellar space.

Extra points for recognizing the gratuitous Star Trek reference. hashtag#nasa hashtag#Voyager2 hashtag#StarTrek hashtag#impact

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