Tom Soderstrom, chief technology officer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), is confident of one advancement that will increase productivity, speed up production timelines and disrupt fields across the economy: artificial intelligence.

Devices that can talk to one another through an internet of things and intelligently process data have revolutionized space missions for the JPL. Soderstrom, speaking at the Amazon Web Services Public Sector Summit held June 20 in Washington, explained how a self-guiding landing craft on Mars can now deploy smaller rovers, analyzing the terrain for clues to life that humans might miss, and relay data between rovers and mission control.

Artificial intelligence can even analyze satellite images to discover tiny signs of the presence of water, evidence that humans would struggle to catch on such a massive scale of data. Cloud computing allows for a faster and cheaper intake of much more data, enabling artificial intelligence to be useful both in space and on Earth.

Soderstrom also shared ways the agency uses AI and machine learning back on our planet. Chatbots that can converse with humans online and on-demand are used to schedule meeting rooms, while NASA employees save hours of time using digital assistants like Alexa to perform complex tasks. Even parking efficiency in on-site garages is maximized with smart programs.

Soderstrom especially praised AI’s ability to improve design and production abilities. In one example, a NASA program can design 70 percent cheaper parts that can hold 30 percent more weight in designs a human hand couldn’t cut, but could be 3D printed by the computer.

NASA JPL can now expect faster development timelines thanks to AI, said Soderstrom, and broader society should avoid “sensationalist fears” of a technology at this point used in self-driving cars, fleet management of trucks, analysis of cancer tumors, and even as teaching assistants in classrooms. AI has also proven to be a key priority in future defense programs for the Pentagon.

“It’s not going to reduce the need for people, it’s going to make people much more effective so we can do more things,” said Soderstrom.