Business & GA, Commercial, Military

Human Factors And the Future

By Charlotte Adams | September 1, 2005
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Human factors (HF) are key in designing cockpit systems. Research psychologists constantly seek to enhance pilot performance by improving the human computer interface. Rarely, however, does one consider the origins, direction and value of HF work. At the recent HCI International conference on human/computer interaction in Las Vegas, Kenneth Boff, chief scientist at the Air Force Research Lab’s Human Effectiveness Directorate, did just that, outlining the trajectory of research since the 1930s and pointing to questions raised by the latest developments.

Boff divided HF accomplishments into four generations, or approaches, organized chronologically by their emergence but equally valid today.

Gen 1 is a mature area that adapts machines to human capabilities and limitations through disciplines such as ergonomics–literally the science of work–whose initial formulations date back to the late 19th century. Gen 1 was formalized in the 1940s and 1950s and continues on to this day.

Most cockpit accommodation, biodynamics, and controls, as well as most displays research, development and applications are rooted in the Gen 1 approach to HF. (Biodynamics is the discipline that measures and assesses the effects of stressors such as acceleration and G forces on human performance.)

Gen 2 is a growth area that emerged as a response to the information technology (IT) revolution, the increased demands of automation and the need to remediate clumsy implementations of IT. It applies system integration techniques to design an environment that balances hardware, software and cognitive capabilities. Voice recognition is a mature Gen 2 technology.

Gen 3 is an emerging area that focuses on coupling humans and computers ever more closely in order to maximize the human/machine system. It encompasses operator state sensing techniques and efforts such as the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA’s) Pilot’s Associate and Augmented Cognition (AugCog) programs (May 2005, page 28). Gen 3 also includes experimentation with drugs to enhance memory, cognition and performance under conditions of sleep deprivation.

Gen 4 is an embryonic effort led largely by researchers outside of the United States. It targets the biological enhancement or genetic alteration of human physical and cognitive capabilities. Boff calls this area–including anti-aging research and genetic medicine–"human factors from the inside out."

AugCog, a growth area in military research, focuses on closed-loop, human-machine systems that continuously assess the operator’s cognitive state under stress and apply mitigations, such as decluttering screens. DARPA’s AugCog program is stimulating sensor and mitigation work within the areas of unmanned air vehicle control, dismounted infantry, missile command and control, ground vehicle applications and the cockpit itself.

The work could have immediate applications in assessing student pilots’ readiness to progress to the next stage of simulator-based training. These "tightly coupled, human-computer dyads," as Boff describes them, attempt to maximize cognitive abilities under extreme conditions by adapting computational systems to humans.

‘Brain in a Box’

Gen 3 is driving toward tighter integration of carbon and silicon systems: the concept of "joint cognitive systems." The computer science community, for example, thinks that by 2015 a small supercomputer–termed a "brain in a box"–can be developed that will match the power of the human brain.

Obviously such an achievement raises questions. What if a supercomputer could be connected directly to the neurons in the brain? Visions arise of immediate access to mankind’s accumulated store of knowledge. The average soldier could become a superman. On the down side, however, users conceivably could be totally controlled, their thoughts and actions manipulated with a joy stick. How would you know if the computer takes charge? How much can you mechanize a human before you make him something else? Like every other scientific advance, this hypothetical marriage of carbon and silicon would have potential for both benefit and abuse.

Such a project also recalls the idea of homunculus, medieval medicine’s "little man" in the brain, who was used to explain how the body functions. Brain-computer research could literally bring back homunculus, an ironic development since the word has been used to describe the simplistic reduction of cognition to executive function rather than the appreciation of it as an emergent complex of functions distributed around the cerebral cortex.

Gen 4, which aspires to the biological improvement of mankind, covers areas such as neural engineering–finding spare parts for the brain–and genetic therapy, a mode of treatment which has had mixed, sometimes deadly results. It raises questions in its potential to change who we are. Moreover, how does this work relate to human free will and what’s the ultimate outcome?

Utopians vs. Dystopians

Boff classified reaction to Gen 3 and Gen 4 as utopian or dystopian. The utopians, or idealists, envision the ability to "save the world, eliminate hunger, evade disease and overcome limitations." Dystopians anticipate the transformation of human nature, the lowering of human dignity and a new era of eugenics fraught with abuse. Ethical challenges include the issues of dehumanization and misuse of pharmaceuticals.

Then there is the social ethics. Who is entitled to the treatments? What should be the level of oversight? If soldiers can be made less fearful, would they put themselves or their comrades at greater risk? Would treatments so change warfighters that they are no longer recognizable by their loved ones?

Are the utopians too optimistic? Boff cited research that predicts that if Einstein’s brain could be replicated in 400 human clones, only one could be his equal. The brain is probably more complex than we can possibly understand. Even in a deck of 52 playing cards there are 635 billion unique sets of 13.

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