Q&A with Nia Jetter, Boeing's Domain Lead for artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and data science, about the importance of artificial intelligence to life as we know it, why diversity matters, and the courage it takes to change the world.
By Will Wilson, Boeing writer | Photography by Paul Pinner
Artificial intelligence is increasingly integrated into our daily lives at home and at work. How is AI going to change how we live? And how can we shape our AI world?
Q. What do you do at Boeing?
A. One of the things we’re looking at within Boeing is where and how AI should be implemented into our product life cycle. I drive enterprise collaboration and develop the strategy for the company in these technology areas, including strategic assessments to determine, for example, where partnering with others in industry or leveraging existing solutions makes sense as opposed to developing new capabilities within Boeing.
My work focuses on the AI applications for Boeing processes and products, but it’s bigger than that. From dynamic, analytics-driven air traffic management for piloted and unpiloted vehicles to smart factories of the future, AI will change our world.
Part of my job is to help ensure the safe and successful development and implementation of AI with that bigger picture in mind. Even as we deliver products and services for our customers with current and emerging technologies, it is also important that we stay at the forefront of this technological innovation so that we can help the world adopt and adapt. This is where the world is going, and we have an incredible opportunity here to help positively shape the future.
Q. You mean acculturating new technology in daily life?
A. There’s a people-focused aspect of my work as well. A big part of our technology planning also focuses on how people will use and understand AI-enabled products.
People have genuine concerns about what a future more fully enabled by AI would look like. Addressing those concerns is as much a part of our technical strategy as the technology itself. It is critical that we as a society develop human-AI interface in a way that achieves trust. It is crucial that people are comfortable with the evolution of our culture and technology as AI is integrated more and more in daily activities.
That’s especially true when it comes to educating people so that they understand where the human-AI overlap requires their assistance. For example, with some of the autonomous car capabilities already on the road, we’re seeing how people learn this new way of engaging as a driver.
Q. What do you see as the big picture effects of increasingly AI-enabled technology for how people live and work?
A. Many tasks that are time-consuming, monotonous, physically challenging or dangerous for people could instead be performed by machines. That’s the first thing I think about.
I also see how there will be some parallels to what happened during the Industrial Revolution. The insertion of AI will lead to a significant change in our culture and our work, including some of the roles that people play. Change is the one constant that you can rely on!
I think that this change will be good in general — when we have machines doing more of the dirty and dangerous work — but there will also be challenges. Some jobs that people perform will be replaced. But new jobs — particularly ones that require coding skills — will be created.
Many companies, including Boeing, are figuring out ways to help employees develop those new skills so that they can grow in their careers and make the transition as the development of AI changes how we all work.
Q. What drives you?
A. Where I work in El Segundo, California, there is a wall with the names and photos of all of the Boeing Technical Fellows who work on-site. When I started working here, there were no African American women on that wall. I saw that often. There aren’t a lot of people who look like me working in AI and technology. I want to change that.
In El Segundo, I did change that. My picture went up on the wall in 2013 when I made Associate Technical Fellow — the first of hopefully many African American women who will appear on that wall. I will never forget the moment I first saw my face on the wall and how it stood out to me.
In 2017, I became one of the first two African American women engineers at The Boeing Company to reach the level of Boeing Technical Fellow. [A third African American woman, a medical doctor, is also a Technical Fellow at Boeing, was already a Technical Fellow at Boeing; for more about the Technical Fellowship, see below.]
Exposure to diversity matters. I understand that more than ever since my picture went up on that wall. I’ve had more than one person say to me, “I didn’t know we have African American women who are Technical Fellows.” Now people see me and reach out to me for mentoring, career or technical growth discussions, and even just to say, “You go, girl!”
Math offers proof that diversity makes a difference. Mathematics shows us that diversity can help to enable quick convergence onto an optimal solution. In a genetic algorithm, you introduce mutation into the reproduction algorithm because it is how you can make sure that you do not get stuck on a local minimum or maximum. Adding the right amount of diversity to the data will pull you off of a suboptimal solution and onto an optimal one.
Q. What do you enjoy most about your work?
A. I get to be the change I want to see in the world.
I participate in groups focused on advancing our society through science and technology in addition to actively supporting groups focused on increasing diversity in technology and STEM fields, especially concrete actions to increase the inclusion of women, African Americans, other people of color and underrepresented groups.
The other day I was in a town hall and people were asking me about biases in data. We had a conversation about how algorithms don’t have biases, but the people who write the algorithms might. We need to acknowledge this and identify biases when we see them, and listen to each other in order to expand our worldview.
We are at an exciting point in time with a life-changing technology, and we’re shaping the future. Every day I’m at the heart of something that matters.