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BY CHARLES Q. CHOI

TEACHING

THE BRAINS BEHIND 'USER FRIENDLY'

Cognitive engineers seek a better match between people and technology.


During World War II, a number of armed forces pilots died in training accidents after climbing into cockpits fitted with unfamiliar controls. On one plane, for instance, they might have learned to pull back on the throttle to slow down; on another, they’d need to push it forward. Caught in an emergency situation, these pilots reflexively reverted to accustomed practice, yanked their instruments the wrong way, and crashed.

Three and a half decades later, operators of Three Mile Island were prepared to handle big problems, such as large equipment failures. They weren’t trained for what hit them on March 28, 1979: a series of small failures, which, compounded by poor computer displays and data overload, cascaded to produce the worst calamity in the history of U.S. commercial nuclear power.

Both of these errors might nowadays be prevented with techniques derived from a growing and increasingly visible field called cognitive engineering. Though its name might conjure images of mad brain surgeons, that’s not what this interdisciplinary offshoot of engineering is all about. Instead, it’s about improving how people use technology – getting humans and their machines to work as a team.

Examining systems ranging from voting machines to spaceflight mission controls, and from medical equipment to unmanned aerial vehicles, cognitive engineers closely study human responses to various kinds of technology. Then, applying a fair amount of psychology, they figure out the right combination of equipment design, data management, and training that meshes with the task.

“We engineers invest too much time and energy and resources developing technology that doesn’t work for people,” says Greg Jamieson, an associate professor of mechanical and industrial engineering and codirector of the Cognitive Engineering Laboratory at the University of Toronto. “And that’s very costly, and that’s often because engineers don’t think about how technology will be used by real people doing real jobs. If you do, you have a much better chance at developing systems that are competitive in the market.”

Here’s how Jamieson and his colleagues helped develop a system to check for contaminants in the water supply:

Working with electrical engineers, they studied what water distribution operators do — what they monitor, what decisions they make, and how they would plan their responses to a warning that came from the system. Avoiding false alarms emerged as a key issue. “In some municipalities, the first thing they are obligated by law to do once they have indicators of contamination is to immediately report it to regulators, even if you later find out it is a false alarm,” Jamieson explains. That meant overall accuracy of the data was more important than the level of precision it provided. So the water-sampling instruments were paired with an algorithm that would provide a rounded percentage of, say, arsenic in the water, without measuring it down to a few more decimal places.

Then the engineers grappled with whether operators would accept and react correctly to data generated by the software. This required explaining to the operators how the algorithm arrived at its contaminant levels. “That way they could evaluate the process, see if it was susceptible to misinformation from the sensors,” Jamieson says.

An Expanding Field

The practice of cognitive engineering — also known as engineering psychology, human systems integration, and cognitive ergonomics — is expanding as more people use more machines on the job and in their daily lives. Cognitive engineers are examining such problems as text-messaging by motorists and looking at how the elderly will adjust to robots assisting them at home. Just 15 years after being recognized as a technical group within the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, cognitive engineering claims 833 members – nearly 20 percent of the society’s membership. The field is also recognized by the IEEE Systems, Man & Cybernetics Society as a subdiscipline of human-machine systems.

Several North American universities now have cognitive engineering labs, including Ohio State, Arizona State, and the University of Toronto. Though rarely taught as a separate discipline, it is most often incorporated into other programs: cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego, and Rensselaer Polytech; aerospace at Georgia Tech, and medical informatics at the University of Texas at Houston. Programs are offered as well at schools in South Korea, Holland, Sweden, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Several North American universities now have cognitive engineering labs, including Ohio State, Arizona State, and the University of Toronto. Though rarely taught as a separate discipline, it is most often incorporated into other programs: cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego, and Rensselaer Polytech; aerospace at Georgia Tech, and medical informatics at the University of Texas at Houston. Programs are offered as well at schools in South Korea, Holland, Sweden, Australia, and the United Kingdom.

Quote: We engineers invest too much time and energy and resources developing technology that doesn't work for people - Greg Jameson, co-director of the University of Toronoto's Cognitive Engineering Laboratory

Since the training deaths of World War II flying aces, cognitive engineers have found useful roles in the military and in aerospace. They can help commanders monitor battlefields, helicopter pilots avoid mid-air collisions, and soldiers control unmanned aerial vehicles and hunt for land mines. They help air-traffic and spaceflight controllers manage a deluge of information. “We’re looking at managing a number of mission controls for multiple vehicle systems from Earth orbit all the way to the lunar surface,” says Barrett Caldwell, associate professor of industrial engineering at Purdue University. .

Intelligence analysis can benefit as well, says John Gersh, a system-development specialist at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, who helped establish APL’s cognitive engineering program. “You often have people making important decisions based on putting together little pieces of information, and cognitive engineering analyzes how teams do that and how information should be presented to them.”

As medical care grows more complex with advances in technology and record keeping, cognitive engineers make sure doctors and nurses use their systems to provide the right dosage of medicines and display the most critical patient data. “You don’t want doctors spending 15 minutes clicking for the right medical image, especially if there’s an emergency — you want to present information in a logical way that takes advantage of how people are good at pattern recognition,” says Stephanie Guerlain, an associate engineering professor at the University of Virginia.

If insufficient preparation contributed to the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, a similar problem became obvious after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. This time, “while satellite radios were there, they were still in boxes with no batteries, and no one had been trained in how to use them,” says Nancy Cooke, cofounder of the Cognitive Engineering Research Institute at Arizona State University. “You can’t just throw technology out there and rely on it to solve all problems without having humans fully integrated with it.”

Embarking on a project, cognitive engineers study how the particular system operates and how the people involved perform their jobs. They next go into the field to watch people at work, sift through procedures and logbooks and conduct thorough interviews to see how individuals solve problems, deal with workloads over time, and maintain high performance. Do they, for instance, place sticky notes to remind themselves what to do or not do? What are the resource and time constraints? What decisions are required? The kinds of information and tools used are all relevant.

Then the engineers try to model the system while improving it, run experiments in simulated environments, and measure performance. Designs often change several times before a real improvement is noted. Finally, engineers take their findings back into the field to see if they make a difference.

Cognitive engineers need training in both engineering and psychology, often pursuing one in college and the second in graduate school, although some pursue a dual focus as undergraduates. “If you’re in an engineering program, you want to have some human factors electives, at least one course in ergonomics. You need to understand how people attend to and respond to information, how they process information,” Jamieson explains. “And you need a comfort with statistics, because cognitive engineering is primarily an empirical science, and you have to be able to deal with variability in your work.” Johns Hopkins’s Gersh has a more complex background, having studied electrical engineering at MIT and philosophy at Harvard.

Between Life and Death

One appeal of cognitive engineering is the variety of experiences it offers. In Jamieson’s case, “I just got into mining, and I’d never seen a mine in my entire life.”

“We’re looking for people with broad interests, who love to explore new possibilities, and who are comfortable dealing with complicated situations,” says David Woods, a psychologist in the Integrated Systems Engineering Department at Ohio State University, who wrote the first journal article on “cognitive systems engineering” in 1983 and helped investigate Three Mile Island. Since cognitive engineers are also required to go out on interviews often, “we’re looking for people who love people and technology.”

A drawback is that other engineers may still view it as a “soft” field. “I’ve heard of a case of a student who wanted to switch over from electrical or mechanical engineering being told by their adviser, ‘Don’t do that; you’re pretty good as an engineer,’” Caldwell says.

Cooke adds, “Often we’re not appreciated by other engineers on an equal footing. It can take disasters for people to realize the field’s importance. We need to push cognitive engineering to the head of the game, and not just wait for a crisis: It should come early in design, rather than having to repair the systems later.”

In the end, “we can really make a difference,” Cooke believes. She cites the example of Carnegie Mellon’s Jim Staszewski, whose work to improve land-mine detection brought him an Army public service award. A cognitive psychologist, Staszewski developed a training system for operators of hand-held detectors, drawing on the techniques of the best operators. The system is credited with boosting detection rates from 15 percent to 87 percent or higher. Says Cooke, “That’s the difference between life and death.”


Charles Q. Choi is a freelance writer based in New York who specializes in science.

 

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