Meet Maynard Holliday, a senior engineer at RAND Corporation who is passionate about robotics and AI, and educating the next generation in the field through the Citizens Schools program in East Oakland.
Previously, he was an Obama Administration presidential appointee and senior technical advisor to the US Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition Technology and Logistics. There he helped advise the Undersecretary on investments the government needed to make to maintain U.S. technological superiority while understanding how autonomy and AI could impact operations.
Maynard has had extensive experience in AI and policy, has worked both in the public and private sector, and is excited to support the next generation by being a resource, advisor, and mentor.
Learn more about his journey into AI and robotics, his passion for providing access to AI education, and his advice for young people who are beginning their career or academic journeys into the field of AI.
We interviewed Maynard as part of AI4ALL’s Role Models in AI series, where we feature the perspectives of people working in AI in a variety of ways. Check back here for new interviews.
As told to Eunice Poon of AI4ALL by Maynard Holliday
EP: As a Senior Engineer at RAND Corporation what type of policy and research do you develop and what does the company do?
MH: I do something called technology horizon scanning for the Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs) at RAND. RAND is the technology policy think tank for the US Air Force, the US Army, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security.
So what I do for RAND, here in Silicon Valley, is look at technologies that could close technical gaps for programs in those four FFRDCs. I also look at how RAND policy analysis can be used for helping municipalities, like transportation agencies and other non-governmental organizations, to think about autonomous vehicle (AV) safety metrics. How AVs should be deployed, as well as looking at large questions around AI, counter-drone technology, robotics, and autonomy.
I’m here in Silicon Valley because the commercial sector in a lot of areas is moving faster than the government is. So in areas like robotics, AI, cybersecurity, synthetic biology, microsatellites, autonomous vehicles — the commercial sector is moving faster in developing these technologies. So it is important for the government to be able to match the rate of innovation in the commercial sector with the problems and the technical gaps that the defense sector identifies in order to maintain our technical superiority.
You have extensive experience in engineering and robotics. How did you get interested in this field in the first place, and what prompted you to pursue further education in design and robotics?
I’m a child of the 70s, so I was motivated by the popular culture of the day, which was comic books and reruns of Star Trek. I saw people who looked like me who were computer scientists in Star Trek or in the Black Panther comic books. I was an original Black Panther reader, and in the comic book origins, T’Challa is an engineer. Also, one of my favorite superheroes is Iron Man, because he didn’t have a supernatural superpower per se. His superpower is his brain. Iron Man also developed his armor through his engineering skills.
Fast forward to the 80s, where NASA picked its first astronauts of color. So these individuals became role models to me, and I wanted to follow in the footsteps of what I saw from them and in fiction — Star Trek and comic books — and so, I wanted to be an astronaut. During this time, I thought to myself, what can I do to prepare myself for a career as an astronaut? As I said, I was impressionable and read Iron Man comics and watched Star Trek, so naturally, I was attracted to robotics. I chose to attend Carnegie Mellon University. Unbeknownst to me at the time when I matriculated there, that they would become the top robotics university.
Coming out of school in the 80s, I was recruited by a lot of companies but I chose to go to a national laboratory because they worked on problems of broad impact. When I got there, I realized that the most interesting projects went to those with graduate degrees. So I went and got a scholarship to attend Stanford University and I studied mechanical engineering and design, and I took every robotics class that they offered.
I was also motivated to learn more about policy during my graduate studies because I wanted to understand the drivers for investment in technology.
Recently, you were a Presidential Appointee and Senior Technical Advisor to the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition Technology and Logistics. What did your role as the Senior Technical Advisor entail, and what are you most proud of in that role?
First of all, it was an honor and privilege of my career to be named by President Obama for that role. During my time at the Pentagon, I advised the Undersecretary in investments that should be made to maintain US technological superiority.
A part of my role, for example, was helping the Defense Science Board to look at autonomy and understand how it could help defense operations to keep our troops out of harm’s way, but also to be able to react at machine speed against adversaries that would be attacking our networks. I would also help look at how to develop systems that would defend what we call our exquisite assets, like the Air Force’s multimillion-dollar fighter planes and billion-dollar aircraft carriers. So we wanted to understand how autonomy and AI could impact operations, and then recommend investments that the defense department could make to maintain technological superiority.
One of the things I am most proud of is that I helped establish the Defense Innovation Unit out here in Silicon Valley. The Secretary of Defense at the time, Ash Carter, gave a speech at Stanford in April 2015, saying that we needed to rewire the Pentagon so we could match the innovation of the private sector in certain areas where they were moving faster than the government was, and we needed a presence in Silicon Valley. I was tasked to help do that.
You give a lot of your time toward teaching the next generation AI and robotics through lecturing in public schools around the Bay Area. Why do you think it is important to teach the next generation and why do you think it is important to provide access and opportunities for young people in the field of AI and robotics?
I am very passionate about providing access and teaching the next generation because they are digital natives, whether they know it or not. They are interacting with technology all the time, are fluent in it, and they should have the opportunity to help create it.
When I was in the Pentagon, we were looking at what we called high-stakes AI — and I’m also looking at this at RAND as well — where you have AI programs that affect people’s lives. For example, denying probation, raising insurance rates or denying mortgages based on biased input of information.
It’s critically important that we have a diverse talent pool who are authoring these algorithms and have a seat at the table to make sure that these biases are noticed and checked before they get into high-stakes AI systems. Systems that can have, in some cases, life or death, life-altering consequences.
I also think it’s important for the next generation to see reflections of themselves in the field. For instance, the role models who are featured in AI4ALL’s Role Models in AI Series, who have carved their own paths into the field.
Ultimately, I want to see more women and people of color in this field, to make sure that the products and what’s being developed speak to all of us.
You have experience working in both the public and private sector, could you compare and contrast between the two to outline the pros and cons for young aspiring engineers?
I’ve had the good fortune of working in the government national lab system, at the very cutting edge of private-sector technologies, and the very upper echelons of government service when I worked for President Obama at the Pentagon.
In my experience, I would say, while working for the national labs and the government, the problems that I got to solve were bigger. The scope of what you’re working on in my mind is more important than improving a search algorithm for a big company, for example. You can have a broader impact, and the work is more interesting.
I think that your aperture also gets opened very wide, simply because of the technical depth of the US military complex, for example. You will get to see and do things that are amazing and you didn’t think possible. But also you get the sense of service to your fellow citizens.
When you’re in the private sector your focus is narrower. If you’re working for a company that is for profit, which most companies are, the focus is much shorter term, and you have to be able to react at the speed of business. Sometimes, corners are cut and the best engineering decision isn’t made.
But I’d have to say that the time I spent at startups was very valuable because you get to wear many different hats when you’re in a startup. You could be doing business development one day, human resources the next day, accounting the next day, and so forth. I’d say those are valuable experiences to have.
Who were your role models growing up? Do you have any role models now?
For me growing up, I had uncles who I looked up to, who were math teachers and technically-minded individuals — regardless of segregation and the racial politics of the day. So they were kind of like hidden figures. I also had a great uncle who was one of the first African Americans to get a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.
Fast forward to the present day, I would say Fred Gregory and Charles Bolden who was President Obama’s NASA administrator were role models for me. Also, Guion Bluford, the first African American to fly into space, was a role model for me.
What advice do you have for young people who are interested in AI who might just be starting their career or academic journeys?
The quote from the movie, The Pursuit of Happyness, has always stuck with me. “Don’t ever let someone tell you, you can’t do something…People can’t do something themselves, they want to tell you, you can’t do it.”
Don’t ever let anybody tell you, you can’t do something because of the way you look, where you’re from, or what your hair looks like. That has happened to me while I was going through my career — don’t let that stop you.
And then, to understand that there are so many resources out there now, that you can access to teach yourself these tools. So you can go to Udacity or Coursera, or any of these online learning platforms and learn machine learning and Python and other programming languages, and you can get online support for people to check your work. So there’s this very tremendous ambient learning environment out there now, that isn’t limited to just universities anymore — the knowledge is open source and if you are motivated to go get it, you should.
And then to join groups like Black in AI and others out there that are providing opportunities and networks for people of color interested in this field.
Maynard A. Holliday has worked as a senior engineering and robotics professional in government and the private sector for the last 30+ years. He has extensive experience in managing interdisciplinary projects of international and commercial importance at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and Sandia National Labs, as well as various robotics start-ups in Silicon Valley. Maynard was an Obama Presidential Appointee and Senior Technical Advisor to the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition Technology and Logistics before joining RAND Corporation as Senior Engineer, where he works presently.
Maynard has also been working with Bay Area public schools lecturing on robotics and teaching robotics through the Citizen Schools program in East Oakland. He was named Citizen Schools Volunteer of the Year for 2012 and was also recognized with a Presidential Volunteer Service Award from the White House for his efforts with Citizen Schools over the past several years.
Learn more about Maynard’s experience here.