‘It’s Like I Just Get to Play Every Day’: Triple Alumnus Kaleb Smith Talks Careers in AI, the Importance of Cybersecurity and His Love for Florida Tech

Triple Florida Tech Alumnus Kaleb Smith with his family.

Kaleb Smith ’11, ’16 M.S., ’20 Ph.D., can’t get enough of computers or Florida Tech. He spends his days helping researchers in higher education and national research labs with artificial intelligence (AI) and deep learning.

We caught up with Smith to discuss his time at Florida Tech, the importance of cybersecurity and his advice for Panthers.

What have you been up to since graduating from Florida Tech?

A whole bunch! I was working full time after I got my master’s degree in computer engineering at Florida Tech in 2016. When I received my Ph.D. with a focus on AI/deep learning in 2020, I continued to work. I led an AI prototype lab for a U.S. Department of Defense/intelligence community contractor at Cape Canaveral Space Force Base and continued using the AI/deep learning skills I learned from Florida Tech to really drive the contractors’ AI capabilities forward. I was then recruited by NVIDIA to become the site lead for the first NVIDIA AI Technology Center (NVAITC) in North America, stationed at the University of Florida. I still work at NVIDIA, where I run the NVAITC, and I help researchers in other higher education universities and national research labs. This is my dream job, since I would continue to stay in school if I could, but now I get to do AI/deep learning research side by side with some of the best researchers in the country in their respective fields. It’s like I just get to play every day.

Why AI and deep learning?

I was always good at math and came back to Florida Tech to do my Ph.D. in applied mathematics. My bachelor’s degree was in aerospace engineering in 2011, after which I worked three years in the industry as an aerospace engineer. I was a mentor for a research experience for undergraduates in machine learning at Florida Tech (Amalthea REU) when my advisor, Dr. Anthony Smith, introduced me to something called machine learning. I was hooked. Not only math heavy, I could code and teach machines how to learn … like out of a sci-fi movie. This was in the fall of 2014, and deep learning was just taking off. I quickly began to read papers and get intimate with the subject. I instantly fell in love with deep learning and the puzzle within trying to not only excel in application uses of AI in our research field, but also touch new models/architectures to make an impact in the field.

How did Florida Tech help prepare you for your career?

Florida Tech and my advisor, Dr. Smith, (along with Dr. Adrian Peter, Dr. Georgios Anagnostopoulos and Dr. Eraldo Ribeiro) really helped mold me into a professional AI/deep learning scientist. I ran projects in the lab, helped other students in a leadership role and had intimate math arguments/debates with all four of them that helped me pitch ideas with confidence whenever I got into the workforce. Since Dr. Smith really drove utilizing my American citizenship, I was a highly sought-after AI/deep learning scientist for the government, which helped me catapult my career into some of the most challenging problems, get top-secret clearance and make a huge impact in my line of work.

Why do you think cybersecurity is so important? What is the value in getting into these fields?

I teach an “Applications of AI for Anomaly Detection” course for NVIDIA, in which we talk about diverse types of industry applications for anomaly detection. There is an entire section in there about how the majority (80%+) of successful cybersecurity attacks are zero-day attacks, meaning they are brand new with no earlier knowledge of the attack before it happens! Also, in 2019, telecom had more than $11 billion in cybersecurity attacks alone. I am sure every other industry has only gone up, and cybersecurity is an essential area where AI/deep learning can be used to advance our defense. This also leads into why the field is such a hot spot to get into right now: It’s only getting bigger. The Federal Aviation Administration also just had a data breach. That’s all cybersecurity, which is so important—finding jobs in this field would be effortless.

What did Florida Tech teach you? Do you have a favorite memory?

Florida Tech was a great place to get an education and understand more industry work, since most of our grants were Department of Defense-focused. Since it is a smaller school, it really gave me a better one-on-one relationship with my advisor, who I could bother every day if I needed guidance or wanted to brainstorm. Also, being a lifer, I knew just about everyone at Florida Tech. Those I went to undergrad with were now in big positions within the university, and it made for an entire family environment where I was so comfortable, it felt like home. Some of my favorite memories were times spent at Panther Dining Hall with my labmate and best friend Kaylen Bryan [’15 M.S.]; work put in at the Clemente Center in the weight room or winning bench press competitions; or just staying in the lab with my labmates and grinding out an assignment or some code. It really was a family, and I am forever grateful for that.

What tips/advice do you have for future or current Panthers?

For the graduate students, find some topic you love and are invested in, and you never really feel like you’re doing your degree. Stop focusing on grades, and focus on knowledge and learning your field like the expert you’re trying to become. No job will be interested in your GPA, but they will be interested in how you talk about a solution or a problem that needs to be addressed due to the confidence you bring because you know your topic inside and out. Be open-minded, and never be afraid of criticism. My advisors always questioned me, but only to make me better, never to show how much smarter they were than me. Lastly, for the undergraduates and graduates, enjoy it! Enjoy every minute of it. Enjoy the downs, and enjoy the ups. Those times will pass, and when they do and the trumpet has blown and you are all done, you’ll miss it. I know I do. They were some of the best days of my life.

Do you have a fun fact or something unique/interesting you’d like to add—about yourself, your job, etc.?

I’m a huge WWE fan! I love it, and the nostalgia from watching as a kid to now has awakened immense joy. Beyond Dr. Kaleb Smith, big tech NVIDIA senior scientist, site lead for an AI tech center, conference keynote, public speaker or mentor, the single greatest title I have ever owned is dad. I am a proud father of the two most amazing, kind, beautiful humans this Earth has seen, and I would give up any piece of paper with a new title or increase in pay just to continue to be a dad. There is no better thing on this planet, and I am truly blessed to be one.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Go Panthers!

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