Creating connections with neural networks

by Mariah Oxford  |   

Dr. Helena Wisniewski
(Photo courtesy of Dr. Helena Wisniewski)

As a young child, Dr. Helena Wisniewski was a whiz at puzzles, impressing adults with her ability to quickly connect the pieces. This foretold a career that fostered connections to create innovative new products — whether in the code of a computer program, as a proponent of research initiatives and programs in higher education, as an executive in government and at corporations, or as the visionary behind several start-up companies and inventions (she’s even a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors).

Wisniewski’s early affinity for analytics led to advancing work in strategic computing, science, entrepreneurship, artificial intelligence (AI) and inventions, all experiences she has applied at UAA. She served as the Vice Provost for Research, dean of the Graduate School and founding director of the Arctic Domain Awareness Center before turning to new initiatives in the College of Business and Public Policy. 

As a professor of entrepreneurship and chair of the Department of Management, Marketing, Logistics and Business Analytics, she has established a popular new course in AI, an AI and Data Analytics Lab jointly with the College of Engineering, and a new webinar series on AI that launches on Jan. 20 from 12-1 p.m.

Wisniewski’s fascination with AI began when developing and managing a research and development program for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a division of the Department of Defense. DARPA activities set the stage for the development of technology that previously only appeared in sci-fi books: the internet, stealth aircraft, autonomous vehicles and many others. At DARPA, Wisniewski initiated and directed advances such as image compression and the first and most widely used facial recognition algorithm. She later implemented these in the industry, which provided some heartwarming outcomes. For example, she used a combination of AI facial recognition and biometrics to develop a tool that ultimately helped unite missing children with their families. 

In both government and corporate arenas, Wisniewski was a strong advocate for neural networks. She saw them as a way to create applications that are beneficial to society. Neural networks try to replicate behavior of neurons in the brain with algorithms. They train machines modeled after the human brain to think like people. That’s no small task, as the human brain has billions of neural connections. 

AI webinar series poster

“I was involved in initiating and developing a lot of the early neural networks,” said Wisniewski. “That underlying technology has become so pervasive in AI applications today.” Like a neural network itself, the field of AI connects multiple scientists and engineers with the original work, and they layer, refine and evolve new advances. “Now there is a wide range of applications that influence our daily lives,” said Wisniewski. “The webinar series aims to highlight some of those.”

Russell Frew, one of Wisniewski’s colleagues at DARPA, recently recalled her certainty that neural networks could become the future of AI. That prediction has come true, with advances in military defense applications, medicine, transportation and communications. As the chief engineer at Lockheed Martin, Frew led teams that tackled some of the corporation’s most challenging engineering issues in aeronautics and space, including AI implementations for the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, of which 54 are slated for Alaska’s Eielson Air Force Base. 

“I hope you feel rewarded as you watch AI make its second impact on the world with neural networks at the forefront,” Frew told Wisniewski. “Hopefully one day when you hear a strike fighter fly overhead, you will look up and smile, knowing in its heart beats a neural network you helped champion for the world.”

Always quick to strengthen connections, Wisniewski has enlisted Frew as the kickoff speaker for the AI webinar series. On Jan. 20, he will discuss the evolution of AI throughout his career and present AI applications used in the Department of Defense, by corporations and in the intelligence community. The webinar series is open to the general public and the UAA community is especially welcome. Register here.

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