John Sauter: One Can Learn Even From Failed Experiments

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Scientist Spotlight

When John Sauter, SoarTech’s Autonomy Focus Area Lead, joined SoarTech, he had already worked on a couple of projects with some of the staff and admired their skill and intelligence. “SoarTech was located in a building next to where I worked, so when my organization decided to go in a different direction that was not conducive to my research, I decided to cross the parking lot and join some of my former co-workers who had made the move earlier,” John explained. 

A graduate of the University of Michigan with degrees in chemistry and cellular biology, John was always interested in computer science and took several courses in high school and college. But while performing biochemical research at the university, he soon became the department’s go-to person for all their computer programming needs and eventually realized that he enjoyed writing software to run the equipment or analyze the experimental data more than biochemical research, so he switched careers.

John ended up at a research institute working on advanced manufacturing automation and large-scale distributed supply chain scheduling problems. This led to his work on distributed autonomous air and ground vehicles for the military. 

“Though the science I work with now is different from when I started, I always credit my experience in biochemistry with teaching me how to properly set up experiments, collect the data, and analyze the results to understand what was going on,” he said. “One can learn even from failed experiments. These are skills not generally taught in computer science, but essential in the robotics field.”

Addressing the Military’s Toughest Problems

The coordination and control of heterogenous swarms of autonomous robotic vehicles has been an extremely challenging problem that cannot be solved by traditional forms of artificial intelligence. “At SoarTech we’re exploring novel forms of swarm intelligence, which has been the core of my research over the last 35 years,” said John. Swarm research investigates how natural systems coordinate and attempts to apply those techniques to the control of distributed robotic systems. “So, my background in biological systems came in handy for my AI work here at SoarTech after all!” he exclaimed.

AI is a great servant and a terrible master,” he said. “As such we need to understand how AI and humans can best work together.” SoarTech understand the strengths and limitations of AI technology and of human decision-making, he explained. “AI, alone, is an interesting toy, but humans augmented by the right AI can be a formidable force for the military.” 

John has been involved in numerous projects and programs, all of which have been important stepping stones in addressing the military’s toughest problems. However, one he really enjoyed, was when he led a team of talented scientists and engineers who developed a truly revolutionary software architecture. “It encapsulates the best of what I’ve learned about swarm intelligence and control in my research into distributed systems,” said John.

DSOARS, a name that builds on SoarTech’s proud AI heritage, is a platform that coordinates the behaviors of anywhere from two to thousands of robots performing a range of missions. “I believe swarming is the future of military conflict and tools like DSOARS enable us to build and counter these systems so we can maintain our technological edge over our adversaries,” John said.

All John’s Favorite Things

John’s two favorite things about working at SoarTech are the challenging problems he works on and the great people with whom he works. “The government has increasingly turned to SoarTech to lead major research efforts to solve some of the toughest military problems we face today,” he said. “And SoarTech does not disappoint. That is primarily due to the great people we have working here, their passion, their wide range of skills, their imagination, and the teamwork that brings innovative ideas and solutions to bear on our customer’s toughest challenges.”

When John is not at work solving problems, he loves bicycling and hockey. He has ridden the DALMAC from Lansing to Mackinaw for many years now, and enjoys just going out into the country and riding for miles. And hockey gets him through the long winter months.

“But my favorite hobby, by far, is spending time with my grandkids,” he said. “I have fourteen now, all of whom live within 20 minutes of us, and they are the delight of my life.”

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