Source: Deep Learning on Medium
Beyond Limits Brings Space-Tested AI to Earth’s Harshest Terrains
Software from California-based Beyond Limits adds ‘human-like reasoning’ to technology that solves complex problems in high-risk environments, from the surface of Mars to the bottom of the ocean. CEO AJ Abdallat explains.
By S.C. Stuart
When sending rovers and robots to traverse rough terrain, from the surface of Mars to the bottom of the ocean, communicating with these devices from afar can be a dicey affair. One false move and million-dollar gadgets turn into bricks and valuable data is toast.
Glendale, California-based Beyond Limits wants to make sure that never happens. Its software adds “human-like reasoning” to technology that solves complex problems in high-risk environments. As CEO AJ Abdallat explains, these “bio-inspired algorithms…imitate the functions of a human brain.”
After one year of exclusivity with BP, which also invested $20 million in the company, Beyond Limits has signed a $25 million contract with Xcell to build the world’s first power plant guided by cognitive AI in West Africa. PCMag spoke with Abdallat ahead of his keynote at the Phi Science Institute AI Summit in Jordan. Here are edited and condensed excerpts of our conversation.
PCMag: Beyond Limits is deploying many technologies developed by your co-founder and CTO, Dr. Mark James, a research scientist who worked at NASA-JPL for over 20 years. How did you two meet?
AJ Abdallat: We met in ’98 at Caltech, which manages the [NASA] Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I was working with the Caltech president and the Technology Transfer Program to commercialize technologies that were developed for the space program and make them available on Earth.
Give us the backstory on Dr. James’ work at JPL.
Mark designed and wrote NASA’s first AI system, the Spacecraft Health Automated Reasoning Program [SHARP], which was used for the Voyager mission. It monitored all the system and performance data from the Deep Space Network. Since Neptune is 2.7 billion miles away from Earth, it takes three huge DSN antenna arrays in North America, Spain, and Australia to communicate with the spacecraft.
As Voyager 2 headed toward Neptune, Mark’s AI system predicted the imminent failure of a key communications transponder (at mission control) that would have caused a catastrophic break in comms. The spacecraft could have burned up in the Neptune atmosphere and the mission would have terminated. Instead, engineers were able to replace the transponder just in time and the mission continues to this day, more than 10.3 billion miles from Earth.
Tell us about the Autonomous AI for Mars Opportunity Rover.
Solar energy is the life-blood of spacecraft like the Mars Opportunity Rover, but the conditions up there are harsh, unknown, and unpredictable. So, the management of energy is mission-critical. A key component of Beyond Limits AI solutions is a technology called the Hypothetical Scenario Generator (HSG), a revolutionary way of reasoning in the presence of missing and misleading information developed by JPL for NASA.
This advanced software system analyzes data inputs, generates hypothetical situations, and reasons optimal behaviors and results. Early Mars missions suffered from a lack of information about conditions on the surface. Human expertise and limited geographical data were loaded into the HSG. But when bad Mars weather threatened the mission, HSG did not have access to historical weather data. There was no historical data, as it was a first-of-its-kind mission.
But HSG is capable of learning autonomously.
Exactly. When the Rover was having trouble charging its batteries, it had detected clouds and wind and associated clouds with particulates, which no one had ever encountered on Mars. HSG reasoned that a cloud might deposit particulates on the solar panels and conducted an autonomous experiment by rotating its solar wings upside down to shake off the dust. It worked, and the Rover’s health was assured for years to come. JPL scientists on Earth noticed that HSG had taught itself to correlate hypotheses that had been proven to be correct with sensor data from the Rover.
HSG learned on its own to optimize behavior of the Rover to conserve power, deploy solar cells safely, and keep the system charged, even during harsh Mars sand and wind storms. HSG had induced new weather models from scratch. The results kept the mission going far beyond its expected lifespan.
How do Beyond Limits’ AI solutions differentiate from others in the market today?
We specialize in solving complex problems in high-risk environments. Unlike conventional machine learning, neural networks, and deep learning techniques that are gaining traction today, we take a different approach by adding a symbolic reasoning layer to produce cognitive, human-like reasoning. Beyond Limits has deep roots in what we call bio-inspired algorithms that imitate the functions of a human brain. It allows us to do things like deductive, inductive, and abductive human-like reasoning.
Your AI isn’t a black box, then.
No. Unlike conventional AI approaches, Beyond Limits AI systems are explainable. The results our systems produce have transparent and detailed audit trails, which are interpretable by both humans and machines. This sets our systems apart from ‘black box’ conventional AI systems that cannot explain how they arrived at a recommendation. Our systems provide an audit trail that explains the rationale and evidence for the answer in natural language. In high-value industries, establishing trust is important and you need explainability to do this.
Do you provide updates on the core technology back to JPL as part of your licensing agreement?
Yes. We enhance some of the IP blocks we’ve licensed from Caltech/JPL and contribute them back to the core. Our people frequently work with Caltech/JPL people and I’m on the board of advisors for Caltech’s CAST lab. We do not supply software to NASA currently. Space is our origin, but our mission today is to solve problems here on Earth.
In fact, your original client and investor was BP, which called on your expertise after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. How did you beat out GE, IBM, and other incumbents in that space?
GE and IBM are really good in their fields of conventional AI, but what BP was looking for was a cognitive AI approach. Conventional AI is a great way to analyze a lot of data and tell you the what, but you need cognitive AI to explain the answer and tell you the why. Cognitive AI is needed for true explainability and conventional black-box approaches simply cannot explain their answers, which means the engineers cannot fully trust the system or apply it to high-value assets. As AI systems are rolled out at BP, they will increase efficiency, generate revenue, and diagnose problems and predict remedies. All of which could help prevent disasters like Deepwater Horizon from happening again.
BP’s exclusivity with Beyond Limits recently ended. What’s next for you?
The natural next step for us was to expand into natural resources and power management. We recently announced a $25 million project with Xcell for the world’s first cognitive AI power plant. We are also working with a car company to monitor driver health while in the car.
Process manufacturing is also going to be a focus for us. These are very complex factories that are running 24/7 365 days of the year. Cognitive AI can make these factories run more efficiently with less risk and downtime while maximizing profits. One of the big highlights is that we’ve proved that our cognitive approach works for a very tough commercial audience. We are working in high-value, high-risk industries.
Finally, I have to ask—sticking with the space origin story—have you built a [benign] HAL 9000?
We are not comfortable with the sci-fi cliches about deadly robots, killer cyborgs, and so on. Artificial General Intelligence [AGI], as a concept, is one that’s as smart as a human. This is science fiction. The computer required for such a super-powered AI system would fill a football arena and require a huge power plant. Our systems accommodate humans in the loop. The role of our AI systems at Beyond Limits is as an advisor to humans to help with decision-making. Additionally, in many cases, our technology can be embedded in the sensors themselves.
You’ve built an AI that is more of an IA [Intelligent Augmentation] to us bio-beings, then?
Yes, humans make the final decisions with our systems.
AJ Abdallat will be giving the keynote at the Phi Science Institute AI Summit in Jordan on Oct. 29.