Expertise Flows from Computer Cognition

Keeping the lights on in West Africa can be difficult, as the electricity market in the region is plagued with power shortages. While disparities exist, access has improved in the last decade across the region from Senegal to Nigeria. However, according to the World Bank, some 50% of the population still has no access to electricity. In areas on the grid, a report from 2020 found regular blackouts averaged 44 hours a month. Existing power plants in the region are inefficient and expensive to maintain. Expanding access to reliable power would require new infrastructure and adopting new technologies. With a bit of help from NASA technology, artificial intelligence could be one of the keys to solving these megawatt-scale challenges.

Modern computers can make billions of decisions per second, but if just one of these decisions is wrong, it could make or break an entire space mission. When spacecraft are in the furthest reaches of the solar system, diagnosing one of those problems can be difficult. These missions require huge amounts of data to be streamed over limited bandwidth. And project managers are only human, with limited working hours to sift through all the information pouring in. Because of these factors, monitoring for signs of trouble needs a special kind of expert. One that was more machine than man.

Developed in the early 1980s, expert systems were among the earliest artificial-intelligence programs in use at NASA. These systems work similarly to a complex flowchart, using real-time data as its inputs and narrowing down the solutions based on these answers. While deductive reasoning made them useful, these systems required the use of large mainframes to keep track of the knowledge base.

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