Pictured above: Hanna speaking at LEADx Change in July 2019 in Tbilisi, Georgia, to next gen leaders on the subject of AI Governance, policy and national strategies.
When longtime IEEE volunteer and leader John W. Meredith died in 2018, colleagues paid tribute to his tireless commitment, his skill at building relationships, and his sincere interest in the concerns of others.
Now, the first recipient of the new IEEE-USA award named in Meredith’s honor is being described in almost the same terms.
IEEE Senior Member Mina Hanna, whom Maura Moran, his nominator, calls “bright, committed, and able to bring people together,” is receiving the 2019 IEEE-USA John Meredith Professional Service Award. The plaque that Hanna will receive — when IEEE programs and events resume following the COVID-19 pandemic — cites his “outstanding contributions to the advancement of artificial intelligence technology, policy and strategy on behalf of IEEE-USA.”
At the age of 31, Hanna may well be one of the youngest members IEEE-USA has given an award for professional contributions. But it takes someone with plenty of youthful energy to accomplish everything that Hanna has since 2017; that’s when he took on the leadership of the then-emerging IEEE-USA Artificial Intelligence & Autonomous Systems Policy Committee (AIASPC). Since 2018, he also has been vice chair of the IEEE-USA Research and Development Policy Committee, as well as co-chair of the Policy Committee of the IEEE Standards Association’s Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems. In addition, Hanna is an editor, and on the Editorial Board of IEEE Computer Magazine, for which he writes the popular, bi-monthly “Policy Corner” column.
Until COVID-19 temporarily grounded him, he has represented — almost nonstop and from a global platform — IEEE-USA and its positions on AI policy and ethics. In 2019 alone, Hanna was an invited speaker or participant at some 20 events. They range from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and the World Government Summit in Dubai, to the World Summit AI in Montreal and the United Nations Science, Technology and Innovation Forum at UN Headquarters in New York.
But wait — there’s more!
On Capitol Hill, where AIASPC is an advisor to the House Artificial Intelligence Caucus, at the European Union’s High-Level Expert Group on AI, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and elsewhere, Hanna has forged important relationships with the Congress, the administration, and other key U.S. and global groups.
He also has led important submissions to Congress and the administration, including IEEE-USA’s response to the Networking and Information Technology Research & Development Program (NITRD) on the National AI Research and Development Strategic Plan.
“Mina Hanna has done more to enhance the impact of IEEE-USA’s Government Relations than any IEEE-USA volunteer I know,” says Maura Moran. An IEEE Senior Member, she served as 2016-17 IEEE-USA Vice President for Government Relations.
Brendan Godfrey, an IEEE Senior Member and 2018-19 IEEE Vice President for Government Relations, goes a step further. He states, “No volunteer has done more to advocate IEEE-USA public policy or enhance its visibility.”
Why is Hanna so passionate about artificial intelligence?
“I am fascinated with ideas and cognition,” he says. “Well thought-out policies and ethics surrounding a technology like AI, which tries to simulate human cognitive functions through machine learning, are critical — because the technology poses very challenging problems.”
Hanna explains that curiosity, and the freedom to ask questions, energizes him — along with the process of understanding thinking and the human brain, although he quickly acknowledges that he studied electrical engineering, not neuroscience.
“One thing that drives me,” he says, “is the question ‘How?’ I’m always so satisfied by understanding new concepts and knowledge, how groups think together and form beliefs. I want to help others to think, and to capture experiences and ideas.”
Brendan Godfrey thinks that the reason Hanna pushes so hard is: “He understands the implications of AI, the tremendous opportunity for good. Part of his job is to promote the proper funding and initiatives, as well as the need for proper regulation.
“After all,” Godfrey points out, “technology can do both good and harm.”
Hanna is the first to admit that although he joined IEEE as an undergraduate at the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas-Austin; then continued his graduate studies at Stanford University; he is a latecomer to the volunteer ranks. In 2016, while working at Intel as a CPU component design engineer in physical chip design, Hanna decided to become involved with IEEE. The timing coincided with his joining Synopsys Inc., in Austin, as a senior applications consultant.
“I was trying to figure out my direction in life, and where my passions would take me; while also broadening my knowledge, and making an impact,” he recalls. He reached out to IEEE-USA Government Relations after he learned about IEEE-USA Congressional Visits Day (CVD). It’s the annual event where engineers and other technologists meet on Capitol Hill with their congressional delegates to raise visibility and support for science, engineering and technology.
Hanna was too late to sign up for that year’s CVD; but Maura Moran, who was IEEE-USA’s Vice President of Government Relations at the time, as well as staff members in IEEE-USA’s Washington office, encouraged him to join the then-ad hoc Committee on Artificial Intelligence. “At the time, we were looking at structure; and we didn’t want to add more,” Moran says. “But it was clear AI needed to become a permanent committee, and Mina had been doing such an extraordinary job — he was the obvious choice to lead it.”
One quality that clearly has led to Hanna’s effectiveness is his almost instinctive talent to communicate his thoughts clearly and concisely, while respecting others’ time and viewpoint.
“During a visit to the Office of Science & Technology Policy at the White House, I was impressed by how Mina articulated both the strengths and concerns of properly applying AI to a range of areas,” Godfrey says.
Then, after being on several conference calls with him, IEEE Fellow and IEEE Computer Magazine editor Sumi Helal had observed how well Hanna presented his committee’s proposed policies. Helal invited him to join the publication’s editorial board and start a new column. “Mina has brought the IEEE-USA AIASPC’s work to our 65,000 Computer Society members,” Helal says. “He sees AI issues as both challenges, and opportunities to create synergies, while ensuring that research progresses along with required policy framework.”
Helal notes that readers have downloaded several of Hanna’s columns extensively. In fact, as of 1 May, readers have accessed the column on data privacy, which he co-wrote, more than 29,300 times.
Born in Cairo, Egypt, Mina Hanna arrived in the United States at age 20 with his family. His father, an electrical engineer with Halliburton Company, was transferred to Austin, Texas. His mother, now retired, was a civil engineer. The two Hanna sons grew up in Egypt, helping their father tinker with broken television sets, video players and Sony Walkman® players — when not experimenting with the store-bought electronics kits he regularly brought home for them.
These days, the first recipient of the John Meredith Professional Service Award is looking forward to getting back to his ambitious speaking and advocating schedule. Meanwhile, he says he’s “feeling incredibly privileged and lucky” to have found IEEE-USA — where he can work on his passions.
“A lot of us never realize what we’re passionate about,” says Mina Hanna. “I’ve found that place where I can narrow it down and pursue it.”
Seeking Nominations for 2020 IEEE-USA Awards
IEEE-USA is now accepting nominations for 2019 awards — recognizing excellence, outstanding service and contributions in furtherance of its objectives. The deadline to nominate is 15 September. For a full list of awards and for more information on how to nominate, visit: https://ieeeusa.org/volunteers/awards-recognition/
Helen Horwitz is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. She was with IEEE from 1991 through 2011, the first nine as Staff Director, IEEE Corporate Communications.