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Technology Planning and Analysis

NASA's vision for IT's future

NASA has recently unveiled its 2015-2035 technological roadmap, an outline of all the advancements it will need to push for to meet the next two decades’ worth of mission goals, including the big one: a manned trip to the surface of Mars.

Some advancements won’t have an obvious application outside of NASA’s aerospace niche. I don’t see radiation-resistant hardware on Hewlett-Packard’s back-to-school slate, for instance. And it’s hard to imagine the application of space-mined rocket fuel when we still have the normal kind down on Earth.

But NASA-led research has still made incredible advances in a wide variety of fields. Last April, two briefcase-sized prototypes of a radar technology developed by NASA were able to locate heartbeats beneath ten feet of debris in earthquake-devastated Nepal, saving four lives. And now NASA has pointed out a shockingly in-depth array of fields that it expects will be leaping forward in the near future. The future is so bright, I gotta wear NASA-funded shades…

Here are the top IT fields that NASA has targeted for improvement.

Cloud-based supercomputers

Cloud-based supercomputing is taking off mostly because organizations can save money by renting their services. If you need complex computing for one task in particular, there’s no point in configuring an in-house computer when you can just use the cloud. ‘InfiniBand,’ a high-speed network communications link, has provided a valuable resource in supercomputers’ move to the cloud. The rate at which it processes data is the highest out of any competing interconnect, PC World reported last year

The sudden rise in cloud computing will have an impact on any IT field that requires supercomputing services, notably electronics design, engineering, and financial services. The benefits extend to any company that wants a faster connection even if there’s no supercomputing to be done, as the InfiniBand’s 56 Gigabytes-per-second is a noticeable improvement on the industry-standard 40Gbps Ethernet links.

Robotics

NASA is looking for more autonomous robotics. In other words, systems that can arrive at decisions by themselves. But the physical constraints of a Mars-located rover or lander can’t be ignored. They’ll also need to improve tactile sensors, activity recognizers, and extreme-terrain mobility.

In this field, NASA’s goals are specific enough to warrant a direct partnership. In late May, NASA began testing InSight, a car-sized stationary lander, for a 2016 test run to Mars.

“Many teams from across the globe have worked long hours to get their elements of the system delivered for these tests,” project manager Tom Hoffman noted. These technologies will always have some cross-application to other fields, but the most relevant news to IT companies is the leap in user interface technology needed.

NASA’s roadmap calls it a “key challenge” for good reason: smart robotics need to clearly communicate their achievements to ground control or astronauts, and receive their next goal in return. To do that, NASA will need to see a boost in adaptive systems and their interfaces.

Big Data Analytics

The future of big data is pretty simple: bigger data. And data analytics is probably the biggest field that we’ll see advancing over the next few decades, although this has deep ties to cloud and cognitive computing, which are the best ways to aggregate the data.

NASA needs affordable big data cloud computing for “surge supercomputing,” it explained in its roadmap. The agency won’t need it often, but mission-critical tasks will need to be handled by developing technologies in cloud-based data-crunchers.

Cognitive Computing

Designed to deal with more complex input than typical computers, a cognitive-based system is able to reason, interpret language, and build upon past knowledge.

For an example of cognitive computing’s impact, just take a look at the accomplishments boasted by IBM Watson. The supercomputer has beaten Jeopardy champ Ken Jennings at his own game, and last year released its own brand of barbeque sauce complete with counterintuitive yet tasty ingredients that included white wine and butternut squash.

Nanotechnology

As data gets bigger, tech gets smaller: with nanotechnology, NASA will be getting results on an atomic level. And the results are awe-inspiring: for example, nanoscale textured surfaces can self-clean and self-heal. They’re biomimetic, drawing inspiration from the healing power within a gecko’s foot. Nanotech might also boost efficiency of power storage, propulsion, and sensors, all while reducing mass.

NASA has set a “need” date of 2021 for the nanoscale surfaces, with additional nanotechnologies needed by around 2027, for a crewed orbital Mars mission.

Artificial intelligence

The rise of cloud computing was like opening a Pandora’s box, and the biggest advancement to come out will be artificial intelligence. At least, according to Roman Stanek, founder and CEO of cloud analytics company GoodData.

“For many decades, computing was steady, predictable, and most of all, constrained. Cloud computing unleashed a previously unheard of level of innovation,” Stanek states. “The future of big data and machine learning is in AI. Only AI can bridge the gap between the need for data analysis and how many data scientists we can train in a year.”

For NASA, less constrained data means more help for its mission. It isn’t personally developing the tech on this list, but its forward-thinking predictions about a variety of cross-cutting technologies appear to be right on the money.

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Adam Rowe

Adam Rowe is a freelance science and technology writer. He splits his freelance research time between finding bizarre science facts and bizarre science fiction, documenting it all @AdamRRowe.

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