| The PI Comes Calling
Projects often have many goals. Some are stated explicitly,
some aren't. You would like for all the goals to be in
alignment right from the start, but sometimes it takes
time for the different customers to work together to make
that happen. An Artificial Intelligence (AI) project I
managed from 1986 through '93 typified this kind of situation.
The name we chose for the project was PI-in-a-Box, as
our task was basically to put the Principal Investigator's
brain in a laptop computer, figuratively speaking of course,
and send it into space. That name was deemed "too cute"
by some at Headquarters, so Astronaut Science Advisor
(ASA) was used officially until the flight. PI-in-a-Box,
however, continued to be used as the nickname, and was
re-established as the official project name after my departure.
Officially, the goal of the project was to improve the
scientific return of experiments by providing the astronaut-experimenters
with direct feedback while conducting their experiments.
An "intelligent assistant," the software in the box, tried
to encapsulate as much as possible the relevant domain
knowledge commanded by the PI on the ground.
|For my team,
the unofficial goal was to show that NASA's recent
investment in AI was worthwhile and that we could
PI-in-a-Box was intended to offer some flexibility
in the experiment's protocol by way of a set of instructions
delivered over a laptop computer screen as they were
doing the experiment. The astronaut-experimenters were
physicians and life-science professionals, but they
were not scientists in the particular area of this experiment.
You couldn't expect them to change the protocol on the
spot if something unexpected occurred.
The official goal of the project was understood by everyone
very clearly. "Unofficial goals" were also clear to
those of us involved in the project. For my team, the
unofficial goal was to show that NASA's recent investment
in AI was worthwhile and that we could help. As we were
a relatively new division at NASA, we were delighted
to be on a high-profile mission -- it would be the first
intelligent assistant, or expert system, used in space
-- and if the project went well, we knew it would certainly
be a big boost in our status.
For the payload integration group we were working
with at Johnson Space Center (JSC), their goal was to
facilitate a safe and successful mission in the manner
they knew how to do. Some of the folks in charge of
figuring out how this and the other experiments were
done on board the spacecraft were far less enamored
of AI than I was. I could understand their point of
view. I was asking them to do new things that they hadn't
planned on. The experiment itself, designed to test
how humans transfer visual cues to inner cues, was going
to take place on the mission, regardless of whether
our PI-in-a-Box made it on board. With this new "unknown"
added into the equation, there was one more factor that
could go wrong.
I had to do a considerable amount of work to convince
them that it would be really helpful to the astronauts
to have this "intelligent assistant" on board. To their
credit, they listened to me and told me exactly what I
needed to do to ensure the system would work as promised.
However, we had to jump through countless numbers of hoops
to convince them that the system wouldn't cause any problems
in space. At times it seemed impossible for us to meet
all their requirements. Frequent communication was important
in developing a good working relationship, but adaptation
was even more critical.
communication was important in developing a good
working relationship, but adaptation was even more
Then there were the astronauts. They were tough customers
too, as well they should be. One of the things the experiment
was trying to answer was why we get sick in space and
ultimately how to remedy that. The astronauts would
look into a rotating drum painted with colored dots
and, as the dots rotated, they would feel themselves
rotate too -- and (sometimes, unfortunately) get sick.
There was a lot of stuff going on at once, and that
meant plenty of opportunities for something to screw
up. This was just one of many experiments they were
going to do on the mission, and one of many PIs they
were working with. Given the nature of our experiment,
you can imagine it was one they would not miss if it
The astronauts helped us in building a better system
by teaching us how to understand their needs. Again,
it was communication and adaptation. In a software project,
sometimes a developer thinks that the user is going
to need this or want that, and then it turns out that
the user, in fact, couldn't care less. With astronauts,
because their time is so valuable, the user interface
must always be on your mind. It was a good lesson for
us to try and understand what was important to them,
which sometimes meant compromising on the loftier AI
Coping with Expectations
Lest we forget too quickly, it is worth reiterating
that this project was not merely about conducting a
scientific experiment; it was also an experiment in
how an experiment in space could be conducted. The parties
involved knew they were part of something original and
far ahead of its time, and we could all take pride in
our accomplishment. Indeed there is nothing that brings
people together like success.
When at last the mission flew, not all parts of the
system were exercised. The diagnostic capability, while
important, wasn't used simply because, luckily, the
experimental equipment performed flawlessly. Interestingly,
this success was viewed as a shortcoming by people who
sought to justify this technology mainly because of
its diagnostic capabilities. Again, goals and expectations
need to be tailored to the limitation inherent in "one
shot" space technology experiments.
Interpretations for success were based on expectations.
Some called the project only a partial success because
the diagnostic capability wasn't deployed. To my team's
way of thinking, it was a tremendous success. The important
point is that we had succeeded in achieving the goal
of helping astronauts conduct a difficult experiment
in space and obtain the best possible data in the allotted
PI-in-a-Box enjoys the distinction of being the first
expert system used in space. My involvement ended there.
By then I was ready to move on. I had devoted seven
years to this project. A later version of PI-in-a-Box
was adapted to a sleep experiment and flown again on
"Neurolab" in 1998.
- Projects often have many goals. Some are stated
explicitly, some aren't. You would like for all the
goals to be in alignment right from the start, but
sometimes it takes time and for the different customers
to work together to make that happen.
- Your role on a project is to be aware of and sensitive
to and adapt to the different needs of the customers
throughout the life of the project.
This story calls our attention to two diverging views
on project objectives. In one view the objectives are
well defined and the parties are able to align them very
early on. In the second view, the objectives compete with
one another and remain in flux until the end. On your
projects, which view are you closer to?
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Silvano Colombano works in the Computational
Sciences Division at NASA's Ames Research Center,
where he leads a group in "Evolutionary Biotronics."
Projects cover Evolutionary Hardware, Modular Cooperative
Robotics, and Artificial Life. Dr. Colombano has
spent most of his working career at Ames, first
as a researcher in Closed Ecological Life Support
Systems (CELSS) and, later, in Artificial Intelligence.
He received an M.A. in Physics and a Ph.D. in Biophysical
Sciences from the State University of New York at
Buffalo. He began the development work on the Astronaut
Science Advisor (also known as 'PI-in-a-box') and
managed the project until its deployment on SLS-2
(Space Shuttle STS -58) in 1993.