Space agency NASA announced the appointment of chief data officer (CDO) David Salvagnini as its first-ever Chief Artificial Intelligence Officer (CAIO). Salvagnini, who joined NASA in June 2023, brings more than 20 years of technology experience from the intelligence community.

Before NASA, he was the director of the architecture and integration group and chief architect at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Salvagnini also led enterprise-level IT research, development, engineering and operations, advancing data, IT and AI programs.

He explained his previous roles, including that as the agency’s chief data officer (CDO)—a post role he will continue to inhabit alongside the CAIO position – have prepared him for what’s to come.

“I’ve been fortunate to work on a range of AI projects that have given me a broad perspective on how this technology can be harnessed,” he said. “If you’re bringing technology on into an environment, there are of course technical aspects of inserting technology into an environment, but also change management aspects.”

He explained it is one thing to insert a technology into an environment, but it’s another thing to have prepared for all the support necessary to accommodate various challenges that may be part of a new technology in an environment.

“Some of the tools that we’ve onboarded over the years have been quite complicated,” Salvagnini said.

AI Integration Across Missions

As CAIO, Salvagnini’s responsibilities are extensive. He is tasked with overseeing the integration of AI across NASA’s missions, ensuring that these technologies enhance efficiency and effectiveness.

His strategic vision involves not only leveraging AI for traditional applications, but also exploring novel uses that could revolutionize space exploration.

“We are looking at AI applications in areas you might not expect, like materials science and even astronaut health monitoring,” he said.

He added the creation of the CAIO position at NASA underscores the agency’s recognition of AI’s transformative potential.

“AI is becoming increasingly integral to our operations, from data analysis to autonomous systems,” he said. “Having a dedicated CAIO ensures we can strategically implement these technologies across the board.”

He added NASA has had AI in their toolset for years, aiding in everything from mission planning to real-time problem-solving during space missions.

One of Salvagnini’s primary goals is to establish a clear, forward-thinking strategy for AI at NASA. This includes identifying key areas where AI can make the most significant impact and fostering collaborations with other stakeholders and agencies.

“Collaboration is key,” he said. “Working with other government agencies and private sector partners will help us push the boundaries of what’s possible with AI.”

Salvagnini explained developing an AI strategy at NASA focuses on increasing the safe and responsible adoption of AI to enhance mission effectiveness and efficiency.

“Certainly, that AI strategy will be focused on how we increase adoption of AI in a safe and responsible way to create advantage and improve mission effectiveness across NASA,” he said.

Establishing AI Best Practices

A crucial part of this strategy is establishing best practices for AI usage.

“Think about a user querying a ChatGPT-like capability powered by large language models,” he explained. “Understanding how to ask questions that yield accurate outcomes is part of a prompt engineering best practice.”

Salvagnini highlighted the importance of workforce training in maximizing AI’s value.

“I have a responsibility to look at the workforce and see how we can rescale and upskill as necessary,” he noted.

Ensuring the workforce uses AI safely and responsibly is a priority, akin to instructing employees on using industrial equipment safely to prevent harm.

While harnessing NASA’s trailblazing culture is essential, it must be balanced with a responsible approach to AI adoption.

Salvagnini stressed the importance of partnerships with academia, other federal organizations, and the private sector to promote a learning agenda.

“It’s really about promoting a learning agenda for the benefit of NASA and all, bringing awareness about AI to the forefront,” he said. “We want to gain the maximum value for maximum effect.”

Challenges and Opportunities to Explore

Despite the excitement surrounding his new role, Salvagnini acknowledges the challenges ahead.

For one, the rapid pace of AI development means that staying ahead of the curve is a constant challenge.

“We need to be agile and adaptive, ensuring that our AI capabilities evolve in line with technological advancements,” he said.

Salvagnini explained that AI will play a major role in increasing autonomy in autonomous exploration, space vehicles and operations.

He pointed out current resupply missions to the ISS already showcase significant autonomy, and this trend will continue, allowing space vehicles to adapt to unexpected conditions, such as navigating space or entering a planet’s atmosphere.

Salvagnini said he is particularly enthusiastic about the promise of AI in space exploration.

“The potential for AI to transform how we explore and understand space is immense,” he concludes. “I’m excited to see how we can harness this technology to push the frontiers of human knowledge and capability.”