Statler College alum assists integrating Alexa into space missions for NASA Artemis I
At the beginning of 2022 Amazon announced it would send Alexa to space as part of
Artemis I, the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable
human exploration of the Moon and Mars. As a collaboration between Amazon, Lockheed
Martin and Cisco, many engineers are integrating Alexa into deep space missions,
West Virginia University alumnus.
Story by Adrianne Uphold, Graduate Assistant
Brian Collins, a senior technical program manager at Amazon, works in the Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) organization of Amazon which builds the ASR statistical models and converts audio signals into words for Alexa. Collins graduated from the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources in 2015 with a master's degree in software engineering.
Collins and his team work to guarantee an Alexa user can receive highly accurate speech recognition, regardless of being connected to the internet or cloud-based servers. In future missions, astronauts far from Earth will be able to turn to Alexa to access real-time telemetry data and respond to thousands of mission-specific questions without being connected to the internet.
"My role in bringing ASR to NASA's Artemis I mission included working to align program deadlines for the ASR model, natural language understanding models, aligning with customer experience teams and hardware teams," Collins said. "I also worked with the quality assurance teams to ensure the models had the expected performance when tested on the hardware that NASA will use in space."
ASR models use machine learning and a subfield of artificial intelligence to transcribe spoken language. With ASR, voice technology can detect spoken sounds and recognize them as words. ASR is the cornerstone of the entire voice experience, allowing computers to finally understand us through our most natural form of communication: speech.
Collins said because Alexa normally has access to the internet, which has the benefit of large servers and fewer hardware constraints, the team was tasked with scaling the system down to run on a small desktop device without access to cloud-based servers.
“Alexa is a complex system with many components,” Collins said. “My team's work ensures that a user of the Alexa system with no access to the internet can still be delighted with highly accurate speech recognition.”
Although the first mission is uncrewed, Artemis I is a crucial step that will allow NASA and others in the industry to test technology that could be used in subsequent crewed missions to the Moon and other deep space destinations. Alexa is one of many innovative technologies being integrated into the upcoming mission as part of Callisto, a technology demonstration payload embedded into NASA’s Orion spacecraft.
Illustration of Alexa integrated into a space mission (James Watkins/Amazon)
Integrating Alexa into space missions can help make life simpler and more efficient
for those on board the spacecraft, especially when they are buckled in or preoccupied
with other tasks during the mission, Collins explained.
The Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, native has worked at Amazon for two years. Collins also focuses on aligning complex program deliverables with program deadlines while establishing technical requirements between hardware device teams, software teams and AI/science teams building ASR models.
"Knowing that a science fiction TV show inspired Amazon Alexa, there's no better way to show off the abilities of Amazon Science and Amazon Alexa than to put Alexa in space," Collins said. "It has been beyond my wildest dreams to know I have contributed to software which will fly to the Moon and help NASA to send humans to the Moon."
Contact: Paige Nesbit
Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources
304.293.4135, Paige Nesbit
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