The Indonesian volcano Talang on the island of Sumatra had been dormant for centuries when, in April 2005, it suddenly rumbled to life. A plume of smoke rose 1000 meters high and nearby villages were covered in ash. Fearing a major eruption, local authorities began evacuating 40,000 people. UN officials, meanwhile, issued a call for help: Volcanologists should begin monitoring Talang at once.
Little did they know, high above Earth, a small satellite was already watching the volcano. No one told it to. EO-1 (short for Earth Observing 1) noticed the warning signs and started monitoring Talang on its own. Indeed, by the time many volcanologists were reading their emails from the UN, "EO-1 already had data," says Steve Chien, leader of JPL's Artificial Intelligence Group.
EO-1 is a new breed of satellite that can think for itself. "We programmed it to notice things that change (like the plume of a volcano) and take appropriate action," Chien explains. EO-1 can re-organize its own priorities to study volcanic eruptions, flash-floods, forest fires, disintegrating sea-ice—in short, anything unexpected.
Is this real intelligence? "Absolutely," he says. EO-1 passes the basic test: "If you put the system in a box and look at it from the outside, without knowing how the decisions are made, would you say the system is intelligent?" Chien thinks so.
And now the intelligence is growing. "We're teaching EO-1 to use sensors on other satellites." Examples: Terra and Aqua, two NASA satellites which fly over every part of Earth twice a day. Each has a sensor onboard named MODIS. It's an infrared spectrometer able to sense heat from forest fires and volcanoes—just the sort of thing EO-1 likes to study. "We make MODIS data available to EO-1," says Chien, "so when Terra or Aqua see something interesting, EO-1 can respond."