Gator Nation News

20 Questions with an AI Leader

From a ‘non-traditional’ past, Damon Woodard would become an expert in the technology of the future. Here, he shares the best advice he ever received, whether he’s an Apple or Android guy, and how dropping out of high school shaped him.

Damon Woodard overcame personal setbacks and went on to receive a doctorate and become a noted AI expert.

Who: DAMON WOODARD, Artificial intelligence expert and director of AI Partnerships for the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering

Damon Woodard grew up in New Orleans, the son of a pipefitter at a Navy shipyard and a homemaker. He received his Ph.D. in computer science and engineering from the University of Notre Dame in 2005 and is currently an associate professor within the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. He is also a member of the Florida Institute for Cybersecurity Research. His research interests include artificial intelligence, image analysis, machine learning, profiling and biometrics.

Woodard sees significant growth in AI in the coming years – in medicine, transportation, agriculture, security and more. “Most of the focus has been on automation,” he says, “but I believe there will be major advances in the area of human/AI collaboration during the next five years.”

Woodard took the time to answer a few questions – from silly to serious – for Gator Nation News.

What was your first job?
Order taker and pizza maker at Domino’s Pizza.
What did you want to be when you were 10?
An NFL football player, specifically for the New Orleans Saints.
What do the movies get wrong about artificial intelligence?
Typically, AI is programmed to perform a single task or a set of related tasks. However, the movies depict AI with abilities that are much more complex, which is not representative of AI's current state.
When you’re not conducting research or teaching, what do you enjoy doing?
Although there is very little time for it these days, I like to play video games. My favorite genre is first-person shooters.
What is just one of your proudest achievements?
Obtaining my doctorate in computer science and engineering from the University of Notre Dame. What makes me especially proud of this is that I am the first African American to do so; I am the first in my family to attend college and achieved this despite dropping out of high school at 15.
Follow-up question: It is inspiring that you dropped out and yet managed to accomplish so much. Can you share a little about that journey?
During my pre-teen years, life at home was very difficult. Although I did well in school, it was hard to concentrate on just being a student. Even though I dropped out, I always told myself that I would go back to school someday. Because of the non-traditional path I took to get where I am now, I've developed a better understanding of some of the potential challenges students from non-traditional backgrounds may experience. This understanding has been beneficial in my mentoring of students over the years.
Who or what motivated you to succeed?
My mother. When I decided that I wanted to attend college, she was one of the very few people who believed that I could be successful given my background.
You attended Tulane, Penn State and Notre Dame. Which town did you like the most?
I would say that it’s a tie between Tulane and Notre Dame. Tulane is in my hometown of New Orleans, so the food and nightlife have no equal. However, I have some of my best memories during my time in Notre Dame, IN.

Damon Woodard with his dissertation adviser and mentor, Patrick Flynn, at Notre Dame. “He taught me a lot during my time as a graduate student,” says Woodard, “and all these years later, I find value in his advice as a faculty member.”

What was the first computer you used in your personal life?
During junior high school, I used an Atari 400 to learn how to program in the BASIC programming language.
iPhone or Android?
Definitely iPhone.
Who, living or dead, would you most like to meet?
President Barack Obama.
What’s just one piece of great advice you received in life?
During my undergraduate studies, one of my mentors told me always to be patient and persistent because life is not so much about what you accomplish but what you overcome.
Damon Woodard in the second grade. As a child, he says, he was quiet, determined and focused.
If we were to sit your parents down and ask them for three words to describe what young Damon Woodard was like, what would they say?
Quiet, focused, determined.
If you could give just one piece of advice to all UF students, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. Sometimes individuals miss out on potentially great opportunities because they are stuck in a particular way of thinking. I believe actual professional growth happens when we are not complacent.
What traits do the best students you’ve worked with possess?
The best students I have worked with were coachable, highly driven, motivated, and organized.
Would you rather (safely and temporarily!) travel 1,000 years into the past or 1,000 years into the future?
The future, since I am curious about what technological advances will occur there.
What’s your go-to snack food?
A favorite saying or phrase?
“Spectacular achievement is always preceded by unspectacular preparation.”
A destination on your bucket list?
If someone gave you $1 million to use on a professional project or to advance your work at UF, what would you do with it?
I would want to investigate AI's use to automate and optimize the design process in various application domains. For example, use AI to develop hardware components, advanced materials, etc., by only providing performance requirements and design constraints.
Please complete this sentence: In the future, AI will
be everywhere.