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Spotlight

Mykel Kochenderfer

Aeronautics and Astronautics
Story originally published on Aug 2021
It’s still completely unbelievable to me that aircraft can fly at all, and I’m saying that as an aerospace professor and third-generation pilot.

My dad ran a flight school, like his dad before him. I started pilot training at age 14, and completely fell in love with aviation. I’ve been around planes all my life and yet I’m still amazed that people enter these metal tubes that fly through the air and safely arrive someplace else. In my mind, there’s an element of magic about it.

My research today lives at the intersection of aviation and artificial intelligence. When I first came to Stanford as an undergrad, I thought I wanted to study mathematics. My roommate kept coming back to the dorm with stories about how interesting his computer science projects were, and I decided I had to check it out for myself. I took a class called CS 121, which at the time was Introduction to AI. Chris Manning taught the class and I quickly became fascinated by the fundamental problem presented: How do we get machines and computers to think?

At the time there wasn’t an obvious connection between my love for aviation and my newfound interest in AI. My eventual PhD research focused on AI, which then took me to MIT Lincoln Laboratory, where I joined the group that originally developed TCAS, the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System. This system was originally designed in the 1970s to reduce the risk of mid-air collisions between aircraft and is currently used worldwide. With my background in AI, I helped create the next generation of this system, which became an international standard in September 2018. Today, I’m excited about continuing to apply the work I’ve done in AI to air traffic control, unmanned aircraft and autonomous cars.

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