How are universities handling the rise of artificial intelligence and robotics? George Mason, for its part, is making its mark by bringing in a maverick to shake things up. Earlier this year, the school welcomed Mary ‘Missy’ Cummings, 56, as professor and director of the Mason Autonomy and Robotics Center. Cummings, one of the Navy’s first female fighter pilots and a world-renowned AI expert, is teaching at the Fairfax campus, conducting research, and devising ways to “upskill” and “reskill” the area’s workforce in all things AI-related.
“I’m on a mission to educate people so that we’re making better decisions about how, why, when, and where to incorporate AI,” she says.
In addition to guiding the next generation of AI experts at the university, the former Duke University and MIT professor hopes to expand her reach throughout the DMV.
“She’s been a wonderful addition,” says Leigh McCue, chair of GMU’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. “We are a very young department, so having someone like her come and really take on a leadership role in everything we’re doing in robotics and AI and creating this Autonomy and Robotics Center that she is now the founding director for; she’s really leading the charge on this group to put Mason on the map in the robotics and AI world.”
McCue says Cummings is a role model to faculty and students, especially since she emphasizes the safe and ethical use of AI. The educator works between the computer science, mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering departments at the university. As the world is talking more about self-driving cars, the next generation of air traffic systems, and whether autonomous trucks will ever be on the road, Cummings will lead GMU’s charge to join the conversation.
“She’s really on the leading edge of some really critical technologies,” McCue says. “And I think it’s giving our students and our faculty unique opportunities to work in these cutting-edge fields.”
Industry leaders based in Northern Virginia see Cummings’ involvement at GMU as a win-win.
“Based on what she did at Duke, I think it’s a really exciting opportunity for both George Mason and Northern Virginia, and I really look forward to seeing what she does with that,” says Manassas-based Electra.aero founder and CEO, John Langford, who has known Cummings for over 20 years. “I’m a great respecter of her work, and I think she’s an incredibly important person in the field.”
At Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, Langford says, Cummings created the Humans and Autonomy Lab from the ground up. The program became a national leader in research and education.
“I’m sure the same thing will happen here,” he says.
Upskilling the Workforce
Beginning in 2024, Cummings says GMU will offer a certificate program in Responsible AI, as well as offering short courses and workshops for executives.
“It is painfully obvious to me that our education system is failing the government, in that we are not upskilling people at the rate and to the degree that they need to be upskilled in the government to make smart decisions,” she says. “I’m sympathetic to these people in the workforce, because if nobody’s helping them and giving them the right frameworks to be thinking about, how else are they going to know?”
The Fairfax resident, a single mom of a teen daughter, says GMU’s Responsible AI certification will be comprehensive in scope, including AI classes in systems engineering, ethics, and risk management.
To her undergraduate students, Cummings is teaching a human robot interaction class and will teach AI and risk management courses next semester.
“From the perspective of the university, they’re giving me a lot of opportunity to grow,” she says. “Mason prides itself on its diversity of students — background diversity, ethnicity, first person in their family to college — and so I find that the students are hungry; hungrier than at Duke, for sure.”
A Navy Maverick
Cummings has spent her adult life a maverick, as one of the Navy’s first female fighter pilots in the 1990s, and later in academia. She said her career has been fraught with peer resentment, both in the Navy and in academia.
“Being a woman is part of the problem,” Cummings says. “I think that is annoying to people. I don’t think I’m listened to as much as men who say the same thing that I say, so I do think that there’s just an inherent gender bias in this country. Both genders pay attention to men; they feel like men know more even though I’ve got experience and all this street cred.”
She became a pilot after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1988 and received her master’s degree in space systems engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School in 1994. When the Combat Exclusion Policy was repealed in 1993, women became fighter pilots for the first time in U.S. history. Already an accomplished aviator, Cummings was chosen to be among the first women to fly the Navy’s F/A-18 Hornet, one of the most technologically advanced fighter jets.
Cummings never felt she was treated equally with her male colleagues, so she abandoned her military career in her late 20s and pursued her Ph.D. Looking back, Cummings holds no contempt toward the Navy and has since accepted its funding for her scientific research. Her flight experience fueled her desire to pursue higher education.
While a pilot, Cummings said there were monthly fatalities in the U.S. F/18 community, which motivated her to study how humans and computers work together in complex technical systems. She received her Ph.D. in 2004 in systems engineering from the University of Virginia and became a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in aeronautics and astronautics.
Cummings’ first academic research centered around autonomous aerial vehicles (aka drones) as a professor at MIT. She transitioned to a professorship at Duke University and developed expertise in autonomous cars and AI — technology’s new frontier. After a stint as a safety adviser for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Cummings settled down at GMU.
The trailblazer is eager to use academia as a platform to prepare the next generation for AI and robotics technology, while informing the region on the nuances of AI.
“We’re not going to be any threat to MIT or Stanford anytime soon,” Cummings says. “But just give me time.”
Feature image courtesy Missy Cummings