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NEWS | Sept. 8, 2021

Virginia Tech NEEC Project Investigates Cognitive Assistant with Implications for Naval Engineering

By NSWCDD Corporate Communications

What if you could have a senior colleague give you instantaneous feedback and suggestions on the work you are doing in real-time? Better yet, what if that senior colleague was simply an artificially intelligent computer program?

While it may sound like something out of a comic book, it is exactly what associate professor Alejandro Salado has worked to develop with students at Virginia Tech since 2019. The project is in partnership with Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) and funded by the Naval Engineering Education Consortium (NEEC).

“If you think of Tony Stark as Iron Man and his intelligent agent [J.A.R.V.I.S.], it’s almost along those lines,” said Randall Tucker, combat systems readiness division chief engineer and NSWCDD’s technical lead on the project. “So it’s not only the checking semantic and syntactic correctness of what you’re working on, but it’s also asking you ‘have you thought about the interaction space?’”

Houston is a computer program specifically geared to help in the development stage of engineering a new product or capability. When an engineer is modeling a new product, Houston will provide immediate suggestions on improving the model.

Most people are familiar with semi-intelligent user interfaces that may correct grammar or spelling mistakes in a document, for instance. However, Houston goes well beyond the scope of these limited technologies.

“The important thing to know about Houston is that it is not about correcting the work the engineer does,” said Salado. “It is about bringing the experience to the table that a senior engineer could bring.”

Salado’s team of undergraduate students, one graduate and one doctoral student each have milestones and areas of work in the project. The Ph.D. student leads conceptual aspects of the work by developing the cognitive assistant’s ontologies – or bases of knowledge. The graduate student leads the hard-coding of these ontologies while the undergraduate students assist in gleaning the engineering knowledge from the subject matter experts at NSWCDD. The undergraduate students gather the knowledge coded into Houston to give it the expertise to make helpful suggestions to the user.

NSWCDD Director of Collaborative Innovation and Academic Engagement Kyle Lackinger stated that the collaboration facilitated by the NEEC program not only contributes to the DoD’s research interests – it also provides students a glimpse into their future.

“The NEEC program affords NSWCDD access to research and development from academia as well as promising students who may find meaningful careers with the U.S. Navy at some point in the near future,” said Lackinger. “We are excited that projects funded through NEEC grants provide university students with practical technical experience and exposure to subject matter experts, setting them up for success in their future careers.”

While this NEEC project is focused heavily on theoretical exploration and will not result in a polished product, the research is pioneering and could generate major positive impacts on DoD work.

When dealing with extremely complex systems, there are myriad opportunities for something to go wrong and Houston’s most crucial purpose is to minimize them.

Additionally, a cognitive assistant like Houston could bring about a paradigm shift in engineering processes that Tucker states could lead to “a capability delivered in the order of months or single-digit years instead of tens of years.”

With the start of the 2021-2022 academic year, the project is going into the final year of its NEEC grant. But as the project comes to a close, Tucker is complimentary of the research and its leadership.

“Alejandro as principal investigator has been phenomenal to work with,” he said. “This has truly been a success story that will pay dividends not only for the warfare center but also for the Navy and I’m both humbled and honored to have a role in this project.”