Hi! I’m Corey Jaskolski, the 2020 Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year. I am an inventor and AI developer and have built and deployed technologies around the world for conservation, exploration, and archaeological missions. Ask Me Anything!

Some of my more exciting work has included:

  • Descending 12,500 feet deep (3,810m) to the wreck of the Titanic in a 3-person sub to help operate robots inside the wreck.
  • Leading a team to 3D map the highest glacier in the world on Mount Everest by helicopter-borne LIDAR and photogrammetry
  • Scuba diving deep within flooded caves in Mexico to build digital 3D models of Ice Age Bear skulls and ancient Mayan human sacrifice victims
  • Building a custom camera array to capture a synthetic “copy” of one of the world’s few remaining Sumatran rhinos
  • Developing a conservation AI system that can find poachers, animals, and weapons in trail cam and video camera imagery in real time
  • Starting the synthetic data AI company, Synthetaic, where we “grow” image data for high stakes AI use cases (conservation, security, medical, etc.) where limited sample islands have prevented high-quality predictive modeling. Synthetaic’s goal is to democratize AI and unlock its full impact in all fields.

Proof: https://i.redd.it/5uzrs8e084s51.jpg

EDIT: Thanks so much for your questions! I had a lot of fun answering them, but I’ve gotta run….

Comments: 144 • Responses: 40  • Date: 

bogey02362 karma

Did they give you a free Rolex?!

nationalgeographic123 karma

The award does indeed come with a Rolex!

woodelf8626 karma

I hope it is the Rolex Explorer I or II, such great watches to take on any kind of adventure

nationalgeographic22 karma

Explorer II indeed! You are good!

rabbitearz9355 karma

What kind of timeline do you usually have to work within for some of the projects you mentioned above? These sound so impressive! Very curious how quickly you are able to implement technology out in the world.

nationalgeographic60 karma

Many of the projects are quick turn arounds. In a lot of cases I will get maybe 3-4 weeks to build and test technology and 2 weeks in the field. Some are longer and span a dozen visits or so (such as digitizing the Mayan artifacts in the caves of Mexico) and some (such as the AI conservation security work) are a really the culmination of a year or more worth of work and testing before going in the field. But no matter how much time you have to prepare… things never go like you expect when you bring tech in the field!

shawncplus27 karma

Personally I find the idea of medical AI trained off synthetic data absolutely terrifying. Even the most absolutely simple AI trained off massive organic datasets has tendency towards inscrutable bias. How does an AI trained off a synthetic dataset which by virtue of being created either by biased humans or a biased AI not create a feedback loop of garbage in garbage out?

To clarify the "terrifying" I don't mean in the "gubmit gonna steal my organs" way. I mean in the case of an AI being trained to find a particular type of cancer or (as your website uses as an example) COVID-19 cases and the synthetic dataset it was trained from turns out to be such low breadth that the false negative rate is bordering on useless.

nationalgeographic30 karma

This is a great question. The way that we build synthetic data basically fills in the blanks between real sample, so instead of increasing bias we actually see a decrease in bias with synthetic data. Think of it this way, if I wanted a cat/dog AI and all my cat pictures were indoor photos and all my dog pictures were outdoor photos, the resultant AI would fail on cats in outdoor scene, because it is biased to indoor cats. With synthetic data we can take the above and expand the data sets to include outdoor cats and indoor dogs, and this has a very positive impact in reducing bias.

In addition, we only validate and test our AI models on real data. As such, we have apples-to-apples comparison that allow us to show that in real world cases the model with synthetic data has more predictive power.

With regard to the COVID-19 example, we actually show that WITHOUT synthetic data the sample size is to small to be useful. https://arxiv.org/abs/2005.02167

You bring up an important set of points here though. Data synthesis is not a cure-all for AI, bias whether through poor data science, skewed data set, or the inclusion of human biases is one of the biggest challenges in building accurate (and fair) AI.

rapparsven127 karma

Hey from Sweden,

I'm the brother of another NatGeo Explorer from Sweden you know very well.
What's your dream project to do right now?

nationalgeographic52 karma

My current dream project is to extend our AI conservation and anti-poaching tech out more broadly. With the reduction in tourism there is less and less money available for conservation and anti-poaching security so its critical to use tools like AI and other technologies to help shift the balance.

Outside of the exploration space, my team and I are also working on another dream project - an AI system that can help identify types of brain cancer during surgery (which would change treatment options). Even though this seems totally different than conservation AI, its really the same problem... how do you use AI to detect rare occurrences whether they are rhino walking past a camera every few days or an uncommon medical anomaly?

Bad-Extreme20 karma

Congrats on the award! Your work is very fascinating.

Anyways, how did you get into your line of work and any advice/recommendations on how to receive these amazing opportunities?

Keep up the good work and have a good day/night!

nationalgeographic29 karma

Thank you!

My biggest piece of advice for how to pursue work in exploration and conservation is to take what you love and then then see if that fits for exploration and conservation and not the other way around. A lot of folks think of me as an explorer and conservationist, but I think of myself as a AI developer, engineer, and tech inventor.

Also, volunteer to get involved! There are some fabulous opportunities around the world and around home for getting involved and often one thing leads to another!

Cautemoc-6 karma

Step 1: Be rich

Step 2: Don't be poor

nationalgeographic17 karma

That's totally not a fair generalization. National Geographic Explorers come from all places and all walks of life. I was the first in my family to go to college and borrowed $500 to start my first company. So it is actually :

step 1 : follow you dreams even when they seem impossible

step 2 : be grateful for everything you have even if that is just to take a moment realize that if you have internet connectivity and are participating in a Reddit discussion you are quite "rich" compared to a good chunk of the rest of the world.

a_hall18 karma

If the feeling of winning the 2020 Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year award was a Samuel L. Jackson movie, what Samuel L. Jackson movie would it be?

nationalgeographic36 karma


“It's alright to be afraid, David, because this part won't be like a comic book. Real life doesn't fit into little boxes that were drawn for it.” - Samuel L. Jackson as Elija in Unbreakable

Carp3l11 karma

What was it like being at the Titanic? As in what were you thinking at the moment?

nationalgeographic57 karma

It was surreal. Being 12,500' deep there is no light expect for the light on our little 3-person sub. All the fish and invertebrates are blind and stark white. I remember being in awe of how large it was... think of how big a cruise ship is and then remember that the part you are thinking about doesn't include the part that is underneath the surface... to see the entirely of Titanic laying there on the ocean floor was a little like rounding a corner on a hike and seeing a skyscraper laying sideways in a meadow.

Wrobot_rock8 karma

What sort of visibility did you have at that depth? did everything turn to zero the moment you got close enough to stir up silt or did you not get near the bottom?

nationalgeographic11 karma

The visibility was incredible. Basically like floating in air... you could see as far as the lights would reach. At that depth there is no algae an not much of the other organic materials that make for low visibility.

LaserHD9 karma

What are some of the programming languages you use?

nationalgeographic24 karma

Mostly Python these days since it is one of the principle AI languages. But I also have programmed in C++, C#, JavaScript, and even Assembly Language (now that one makes me feel old!)

PerkyLurkey8 karma

Paper or plastic bag at checkout if you have forgotten your own grocery tote?

nationalgeographic14 karma

Paper for sure!

ampers695 karma

How you got to do this type of stuff for living?

nationalgeographic15 karma

I wish there was was an easy answer that didn't sound cliché. But really: never give up on your dreams. Most of us as little kids truly thought we could be anything we wanted to right? Keep that mentality your whole life (even when it seems silly or wildly unrealistic) and don't let anyone tell you your dream is impossible.

Leenzlions5 karma

Thanks for doing this AMA! What’s the next project you’re working on? And also what’s your dream project that you’d like to achieve?

nationalgeographic20 karma

I have a lot of dream projects, so I'll give another answer to the others I gave :)

Having worked closely with the Sumatran Rhino I understand that one of the keys to the survival of the species is to find most of all of the less than 80 remaining individuals so they can be brought to the same area so they can reproduce and be protected from poaching. The trouble is that they are in very remote areas and very hard to find. I would love to be able to use our AI-enabled cameras and any other tools necessary to help find ALL of the Sumatran Rhinos and give them the best chance possible!

nationalgeographic7 karma

Here is some more info on the Sumatran Rhino Rescue and a blog I wrote about digitizing a 3D digital "copy" of the rhino.

a1001ku5 karma

Congratulations on your award!

I just wanted to ask, are there any projects you have developed that might be used in space exploration?

nationalgeographic19 karma

I have built a few space technologies. One (that failed spectacularly) was a 360 camera in a large 2-stage rocket we launched from the Black Rock desert. It blew itself to pieces at 2000mph (3200 kph) and rained down pieces of my custom camera :(


a1001ku4 karma

That must've been disappointing to the say the least.

nationalgeographic13 karma

It was, but that's the thing with exploration. If it was easy it wouldn't be fun! The failures are disappointing, but I always learn something from them.

kawaiian4 karma

How do you handle your fear of death?

nationalgeographic12 karma

I am often afraid, but more usually not as much while something is happening but afterwards. While in a dangerous situation, my mind is so busy trying to solve the problem than I think I "forget" to be afraid. And then later, after I'm back on safe ground, it all comes back. I have had a lot of other folks that spend time in dangerous places and situations say the same thing.

woahwoahwoahthere3 karma

My brother and I are just some regular programmers but are interested in building an archaeological DIY device using a GPR and having AI help with it. Our family is from a country that doesn’t get much arachaeological love so we were wondering are there any steps that helped jumpstart your 3D mapping using LiDAR?

nationalgeographic4 karma

That sounds like a great project! In terms of getting people excited about it, I always try to do a demo. If you show people a GPR scan of a buried wall or something without your AI concept and then with it, and it shows up better, you will get some excited people I think.

They way I would approach GPR AI is to either think of each scan as an image and then you can do standard CNNs or super-resolution etc. Or think of sets of scans as a 3D point cloud and use some of the recent 3D point cloud classification AI https://towardsdatascience.com/deep-learning-on-point-clouds-implementing-pointnet-in-google-colab-1fd65cd3a263 research to help there.

chicken_tiger2 karma

Do you enjoy (sci-fi) books about AI? Do you have any recommendations? Thank you!

nationalgeographic4 karma

I pretty much only read sci-fi!

Couple of recent favorites are We are Legion (we are Bob) by Bob Johansson and All Systems Red by Martha Wells.

TalkingBackAgain2 karma

Corey, when do you believe a general AI will emerge and if it ever does, how will we prevent it from killing us all?

nationalgeographic8 karma

I think we are a fair bit of time from General AI (an AI that is similar in intelligence to a human). For example, note that size of a modern convolutional neural network (one of the best AI tools available for detection of objects in images, etc. these days) in terms of number of parameters is only about 1/4 the number of neurons in a fruit fly brain. So I'll say at least 25 years.

I think its hard to build in a safety switch. If an AI becomes MORE intelligent than us, it will probably figure out a way around any restrictions we put on it. The only answer may be to instill the AI with the best of humanity: empathy, hope, kindness and not the worst.

rocketlemon2 karma

Your work in using AI to help protect endangered species is fascinating. Have you ever considered applying similar approaches to helping eradicate invasive species?

nationalgeographic3 karma

We have thought about it. When we do aerial photography (often using 100 megapixel cameras) to find elephants or other animal species, we can see the vegetation very clearly. I believe we could use this sort of imagery to train an AI to find invasive species like Chromolaena .

VioletBroregarde2 karma

if you're so interested in ai and conservation then why aren't you trying to upload the consciousnesses of all the animals into the cloud where they can live forever hmmmmmmmmmm?

nationalgeographic15 karma

We could only do this with birds since they can already live in the clouds but fish wouldn't do well!! And this also sounds like the start of a horror movie :)

TheMumbleNinja2 karma

Would you have any advice for someone wanting to start a small business, who feels they have got no way in?

nationalgeographic5 karma

Just give it a go! I didn't think I had a way in either and now I can't imagine how different my life would be without taking those chances.

Zilver-alpha2 karma

Where do you think the development of AI should stop?

Where is the line which we should not cross?

nationalgeographic3 karma

I feel that in situations that require a moral or ethics based decision, we can't let AI make decisions for us. There is big a difference between raw intelligence and intelligence guided by a moral compass. In these situations, AI can still be a decision-support tool for us, we just shouldn't let its output independently drive action.

jaceinthebox1 karma

How much money have you spent to do all these things? What can I do to get my 9month old daughter to become Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year in the future and how much will it cost me based on today's Money.

nationalgeographic2 karma

I have never paid to do an experience or the like so $0 in the perspective. But I have built many millions of dollars in technologies!

Best way to get your 9 month old daughter to become the Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the year is to support her unique dreams while sharing your values of exploration and conservation with her :)

ris01 karma

I’m an experienced software engineer that would like to become more involved with exploration and conservation projects. Do you have any advice on how to find projects that suits my skillset?

nationalgeographic2 karma

I would try reaching out to a few of the non-profits that you feel aligned with and seeing if they have any volunteer projects. Many of them have ongoing web and mobile programming needs. My nephew recently volunteered his web dev skills which had him travel to Vietnam to work with a wildlife related non-profit. Its a good way to see what some of the work is like while helping make a difference for a good cause.

samthepitbull1 karma

How long before AI gets used by some hacker for evil or death or theft on a large scale?

nationalgeographic1 karma

I'm hoping never! But unfortunately it is always easier to destroy than it is to create, so like with any other powerful tool we need to be having these conversations about the worst case and ways to circumvent it even if unlikely.

busydoinnothin1 karma

Sorry if this was asked before. What was the reason of leaving the Ice Age Bear skull back in its place? Thanks!

nationalgeographic6 karma

There is so much context in archeology and paleontology that a tremendous amount is lost when something is removed and taken to a museum or the like. I have been in many museums where there are just drawers of skulls. In a drawer it is totally lost whether that skull was next to a stone tool because it was hunted, placed strategically as an offering, or found with a bunch of other animals as if there was a cave-in.

In most of the digitization we have done we don't actually move the objects at all and just do not capture the part that is resting on the ground. But this Ice Age bear skull was likely a new species, so the archeologists involved decided it was critical to get a good 3D scan for the scientific record.

chrisjames241 karma

Thank you Corey for such aa fascinating AmA. You have piqued and interest I never knew I had and genuinely feel like I have learnt a lot - I will go on to research much further. And thank you for going into such detail in your responses and making it so even a simpleton like me can understand :)

Now, onto the question/questions - how are you able to get funding for your projects, what is the process from idea to going out and making it a reality and how long does it usually take?

Thank you.

nationalgeographic2 karma

Many of my projects have been funding by National Geographic Society as part of their mission to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. There is a Grants program at National Geographic that is open to applications from anyone with a good idea that is aligned to the mission: https://www.nationalgeographic.org/funding-opportunities/grants/

troublrTRC1 karma

How soon do you think your work can be done by AI, or anyones for that matter? Or is your work a truly human job?

nationalgeographic5 karma

I think my job and many jobs will shift when AI becomes truly commonplace. We need to build AI (and all technology) with thoughtful caution to try to avoid negative side effects. If we do this well, I believe that the shift will be like when there were computers vs when everything done was manual but not widescale loss of human opportunity.

iorgfeflkd1 karma

Does it feel tacky when your award title has a sponsorship in front of it?

nationalgeographic3 karma

Not at all to me! Both Rolex and National Geographic have such a long history of supporting Explorers and expeditions from Everest to the deepest parts of the ocean, so for me it make the award title much better.

TheDoubleL271 karma

Hey Corey, thanks for doing this and for all of the amazing work you do to better the lives of others.

My first question is, what advice do you have for young professionals who find themselves in the early stages of their careers trying to break into AI as an emerging industry? What are the most important concepts to demonstrate competency in for both technical and non-technical product team members?

And additionally, how do we become better advocates for ethical applications of AI in business that still generate revenue?

nationalgeographic1 karma

My advice in early career AI is to do your own project (by yourself or with a team of friends) end-to-end. Make something that shows you understand the whole process from data collection to a web app that makes AI predictions. I review a LOT of AI developer resumes and the a self guided project like this really stands out.

The best way to be a better advocate for ethical AI is to incorporate that in all of your work. Refuse to do anything that make you as a person uncomfortable. Think through the long term issues that may not be obvious. There have been stories of AI researchers completely leaving the field over ethics concerns, and though I respect their choices, I believe we can all do more to move the field forward ethically by us developers demanding ethics being part of the conversation in each project.

Banana_King11 karma

What did you major in? And do you have any advice to someone who is looking into majoring in an engineering degree with an interest in AI? (I know it is under computer engineering but I cant decide whether I want to do computer engineering or Mechanical)

nationalgeographic2 karma

I majored Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) at MIT. My biggest recommendation if you go with an AI degree path is to do LOTS of projects. When I see resumes, what really stands out to me is the projects people have done more than the courses they took, etc. Kaggle competitions are good for building skills, but even better is to find your own AI project. As an employer that shows me you can: visualize a solution, collect data, and all those other important aspects that are often overlooked in an AI education.

Kevinok601 karma

Have you, or your fellow AI developers ever watched the terminator?

nationalgeographic3 karma

What's that about? I haven't seen that one :)

Just kidding. Of course. But, though the machines destroyed the world in Terminator, it was also a Terminator that saved humanity by keeping John Connor safe.

piecat1 karma

Wondering how your got started on your path? Formal education? Industry experience that evolved?

You must be a wizard at time management. What does your daily schedule look like? L

Any tips on productivity, time management, etc?

nationalgeographic2 karma

I am horrible at time management! The only way I hold it together is that the things I work on matter so much to me that I'll work crazy hours to get it all working if need be. I have also found that having some time totally away from the computer (e.g. I like to garden and also brew beer) really helps keep me productive and helps me come up with new ideas.

stairwayuptouptown1 karma

Pancakes or waffles? I have to know if I like you or not.

nationalgeographic2 karma

Pancakes, but purely for the butter and syrup adsorption characteristics.

shabbywhale1 karma

What's the strangest thing you've ever witnessed in the deep ocean?

nationalgeographic1 karma

Bioluminescence for sure. Being so deep that it is completely dark even during the day and seeing million of bioluminescent creatures as if you are looking into the starry night sky is incredible!

SpinHarley931 karma

Hey Corey, how would you predict the future of A.I would unfold in this decade at least?

nationalgeographic2 karma

I think we have just scratched the surface so far with AI and that as tools like synthetic data allow for AI to be democratized across more and more applications, we will start to see it with much more application in everyday life. I think we are still 2-3 decades from general AI, but in the next decade I expect it will touch nearly every part of our lives.

Benjaminbut0 karma

What is your biggest inspiration? Your work as an explorer fascinates me btw.

nationalgeographic4 karma

My biggest inspiration has to be seeing how children see the world. In their eyes, everything is still possible