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Podcast: Missy Cummings Is No Debbie Downer

Guest: Professor in the George Mason University Mechanical Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Computer Science departments
Missy Cummings
Missy Cummings

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By Junko Yoshida

Our guest today is Missy Cummings, director of George Mason University’s Center for Robotics, Autonomous Systems, and Translational AI. A naval officer and military pilot from 1988-1999, Cummings became one of the Navy’s first female fighter pilots, flying an F/A-18 Hornet.

Our conversation takes us from her military experience to her most recent assignment at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the new role she plays at George Mason University.

Her stint as senior safety advisor at NHTSA was probably too short – 15 months – for anyone to enact big changes to the federal safety agency. But she was at NHTSA when the agency started to collect two sets of data on crashes — one involving self-driving, and another by driving-assist car. Companies have been required since July 2021 to file reports with the feds on all such incidents.

We ask Cummings for her analysis.

We also wonder why her fighter pilot experience – during which she said she had developed an implicit trust in the fighter jet’s automated ability to land safety all by itself – does not inspire her to trust in the technology used by autonomous vehicles. She explains why.

We talk about advancements of generative AI and ChatGPT. Cummings said, “People think of me as the ‘Debbie Downer of AI,’ but I’m not.” She concedes the great potential of AI technologies, but cautions, “I prefer people understand their limits.”

As of January, Cummings moved from Duke to become a professor at George Mason University. Thus far, engineering education has focused generally on developing a cadre of experts who can create AI. Equally critical, though, is bringing up experts who know “how to evaluate AI,” she said. In her opinion, we need both experts and non-experts to “understand if AI is the right choice for the technology” a company is proposing.

Listen to our chat with Missy Cummings here.

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