Could the same computer algorithms that teach autonomous cars to drive safely help identify nearby asteroids or discover life in the universe? NASA scientists are trying to figure that out by partnering with pioneers in artificial intelligence (AI) — companies such as Intel, IBM and Google — to apply advanced computer algorithms to problems in space science.
Machine learning is a type of AI. It describes the most widely used algorithms and other tools that allow computers to learn from data in order to make predictions and categorize objects much faster and more accurately than a human being can. Consequently, machine learning is widely used to help technology companies recognize faces in photos or predict what movies people would enjoy. But some scientists see applications far beyond Earth.
Giada Arney, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, hopes machine learning can help her and her colleagues find a needle of life in a haystack of data that will be collected by future telescopes and observatories such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.
“These technologies are very important, especially for big data sets and especially in the exoplanet field,” Arney says. “Because the data we’re going to get from future observations is going to be sparse and noisy. It’s going to be really hard to understand. So using these kinds of tools has so much potential to help us.”