SMU Lyle’s Dr. Jia Zhang and NASA Collaborators Awarded Patent for Alexa-Like Virtual Research Assistant

MATA, a research assistant powered by artificial intelligence, turns NASA’s earth science data into useable knowledge for scientists

Dr Jia Zhang
Dr Jia Zhang and NASA

NASA sensors scattered across land, sea, and space have collected hundreds of terabytes of Earth science data over the past four decades. Imagine if a digital assistant like Alexa or Siri, powered by artificial intelligence (AI), could quickly and easily sift through that data to answer scientific questions for researchers.

Jia Zhang, Interim Chair and the Cruse C. and Marjorie F. Calahan Centennial Chair in Engineering and professor in the Department of Computer Science in SMU Lyle’s School of Engineering, was recently awarded a patent along with NASA collaborators for developing an intelligent, virtual, personalized assistant for Earth science research. MATA, which is the Sanskrit name for the Earth, provides conversational computing that allows users to type or verbally ask questions through a computer or mobile phone.

The technology is specifically designed for searches that are geospatial and time-aware, such as, “What was the weather like in San Francisco three days ago?” In addition, it continuously integrates community intelligence and can evolve as new research is developed.  

“By developing a virtual assistant that continuously integrates community intelligence, provides personalized research assistance in a conversational manner and is geo-spatially and space-time aware, we can build better collaboration within the Earth science community,” Zhang said. “Our goal is to help scientists leverage collective knowledge and data to better understand the Earth and climate change.” 

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Jia Quote

Improving natural disaster predictions using AI

Predicting natural disasters and creating climate models involve processing an enormous amount of data. Zhang’s work is dedicated to developing intelligent systems that help speed up processing using machine learning. 

For example, MATA is designed to pull stored data from dozens of satellites related to hurricanes, floods, dust storms, heat waves, power outages, and more. When a user asks a question, MATA finds the answer by pulling the appropriate data and conducting additional computations as needed. The answer is then provided conversationally.

While NASA makes Earth science data available on the web, MATA provides the computing to turn the data into useable knowledge. 

“It’s an infrastructure that provides an added layer of support to help scientists better analyze the data,” Zhang said. “This can be used for natural disaster management and predicting wildfires or other events, weather data and forecasting, and building climate prediction models.”

Zhang hopes to use the data science infrastructure she developed as the backbone for AI-powered analytics in other fields, such as healthcare applications that can detect disease early. “I hope to use machine learning to tackle a variety of data science infrastructure problems,” she said.
“At Lyle School of Engineering, we're dedicated to fostering innovation that transcends boundaries and empowers researchers to tackle complex challenges,” said Nader Jalili, Mary and Richard Templeton Dean of Bobby B. Lyle School of Engineering. “Jia Zhang's groundbreaking work in developing MATA, an AI-powered virtual assistant for Earth scientists, exemplifies our commitment to cutting-edge technology and collaborative research. This achievement underscores our vision of pioneering digital transforming in engineering to drive positive change in the world, and we're proud to support Jia Zhang and her NASA collaborators in this remarkable endeavor.”


About the Bobby B. Lyle School of Engineering 

SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering thrives on innovation that transcends traditional boundaries. We strongly believe in the power of externally funded, industry-supported research to drive progress and provide exceptional students with valuable industry insights. Our mission is to lead the way in digital transformation within engineering education, all while ensuring that every student graduates as a confident leader. Founded in 1925, SMU Lyle is one of the oldest engineering schools in the Southwest, offering undergraduate and graduate programs, including master’s and doctoral degrees.


About SMU 

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in eight degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, community and the world.