Epistemology and Simulation

September 28, 2012

Epistemology is the study of knowledge. What is knowledge exactly? Well, I’m happy (for reasons argued elsewhere) to use the definition going back to Plato, that of justified true belief. For example, I know – or at least believe – that there’s a tree growing outside my window.

The tree outside my window (my photo)

Ultimately, this belief is grounded in the way the human visual system works, and on the way in which my perception of the tree triggers remembrance of trees past. All this falls within the scope of cognitive psychology, and experimental work in this area has told us a great deal about how human perception works.

The human visual system, from Gray’s Anatomy, 1918

Is my belief true? You’ll have to judge that for yourself (although the photograph may help convince you). Is it justified? Well, that’s the domain of philosophy – am I justified in trusting my senses?

In his Confessions, Saint Augustine takes “seven and three are ten” as a touchstone of truth, and in his City of God, he writes “the man who says that seven and three are eleven, says what cannot be true under any circumstances.” I agree with him. Here again, my belief falls within the scope of cognitive psychology (and developmental psychology, since Cuisenaire rods helped convince me of this back in kindergarten).

Seven and three are ten

Is my belief true? Once again, judge that for yourself. Is it justified? Well, that’s the domain of mathematics this time (and, as an older child, I learned to prove 7 + 3 = 10 mathematically).

Shortly, I hope to attend the 5th Epistemological Perspectives on Simulation (EPOS) Conference at Trinity University (San Antonio, Texas). We will be exploring whether it is possible to know things (especially things about social phenomena) as the result of a simulation (and, if so, how). It promises to be an interesting event. Papers from two of the four past instances of this conference series can be found here (2004) and here (2008).

(Public domain photo)

– Tony

(Religion) Lost in Space

September 24, 2012
Luna 9 :*Denomination: 2 Forint

Luna 9 :*Denomination: 2 Forint (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The concept that any future interstellar exploration be free of organised religion has recently been discussed.  Some have expressed the view that religion is toxic for human interaction and cooperation as is evidenced in many unsavoury incidents throughout history and is currently being witnessed with respect to the YouTube video denigrating the prophet Mohammed and subsequent reaction to it.

Humans have many attributes which may be positive or negative depending on the context.  Adaptability and imagination are very valuable human abilities, but these skills are not required nor perhaps desirable in a situation that requires heuristic thinking.  Conversely, applying a flawed or inappropriate heuristic can have disastrous consequences, or prevent a more appropriate paradigm from being developed.

A human will always be influenced in how they act and think by their prior experience. Even the application of the scientific method cannot eliminate these influences. The ability to assess complex data for example can be affected by education, training, aptitude and a host of other factors, which can vary according to the information being assessed.  It probably explains the range of specialities within a discipline, for example, in medicine, physics, chemistry, engineering and psychology.  With regard to future space exploration, the various TV program depictions such as Star Trek portray a range of specialists in the crew, making the assumption that all of these skills will be required to fully comprehend the magnitude and complexity of space.

Given that previous experience or belief systems are an inherent part of the human condition, it seems logical that a religious aspect will also then be represented within the crew of any intergalactic mission if it is to be truly representative of the human species.  And as bigoted or fundamentalist religious views are by definition extreme values within a normal population, it is highly unlikely that these would be represented to any significant statistical level.

With regard to positive and negative attributes, religion has been blamed for many ills, many of which can be justified.  However, religion should also be recognised for its many positive aspects, such as altruistic value systems, beneficence, the intrinsic value of individuals regardless of race, social standing or wealth, the existence and importance of a fundamental natural order and the concept of stewardship and responsible use of resources that then derive from it. Many advances in science were made possible by the religious systems of the time, such as astronomy and mathematics, although some of the authorities subsequently disputed the findings for whatever reason.  Is it so different to what is currently occurring where the evidence supporting climate change is disputed by certain sections within a secular society without any obvious underlying religious philosophical rationale?  It seems that belief systems generally, not just religious ones, are the root cause of disagreement.  This can be beneficial in the search for scientific truth and the progression of understanding – perhaps conflict is a positive human attribute as long as it is confined within an intellectual framework.So the discussion regarding the crew mix for future space exploration missions should expand to include all human experience and belief systems.  Perhaps religion can help unlock the mysteries of the human mind and the continuing quest of the species to explore and understand the universe.  All of which relates back to human science.

The rise of the drones

September 17, 2012
Kawasaki KAQ-1 Drone at Castle Air Museum

Kawasaki KAQ-1 Drone at Castle Air Museum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The ever increasing ability and availability of drone technology will have a major impact on defence and law-enforcement operations in the future.  Where capabilities of platforms used to be defined by the ability to deploy various assets within the capability of a class or type of vessel ( in naval operations for example, a carrier vs an offshore combatant vessel), the latter smaller platforms may soon be able to deploy an aerial capability which could previously only be provided by the larger and far more expensive vessels.

As noted in the article, this can have far-reaching consequences for navies where the majority of tasks are routine patrol and ‘constabulary’ operations of protecting sea lanes and territorial integrity.  With drone technology, a single smaller platform could perform tasks which currently require several more capable and expensive assets (for example, the patrol of a shipping route subject to piracy).

A telling point made in the article is the close involvement of the human in the loop.  Similar to other advances in automation, the command and control function remains within the human domain.  As stated “…there will inevitably be a human in the operational Observe, Orient, Decide and Act (OODA) loop – be they a remote operator, data handler oFull diagram originally drawn by John Boyd for...r decision maker within any of a number of mission sets.”

So the design of the HMI will determine how successful this shift in technology will be.  As has been seen in Afghanistan, the ability of the remote operator of a drone aircraft to gain and maintain situational awareness to perform their mission without unintended consequences will greatly depend on the amount, type and quality of information available to them and what range of tasks they need to perform.  Many combat aircraft have a crew of two due to the separate and demanding pilot and SA/engagement tasks, and military drone strike operations seem to reflect this crewing model. Perhaps this model is a historical legacy which may also change in the future as drones dispense with the constraint of having to fit the aircrew into the platform.

This may cause a shift in emphasis of the Human Factors and Ergonomics discipline.  A lot of effort was traditionally expended in the physical anthropometric ergonomics aspect of the human in the loop probably because it was so obvious. For example, range of movement, posture etc within a cockpit could be calculated and the 95thpercentile adopted as a standard which could then be used to determine interaction within the crew space available in the airframe. As we all know, engineers love standards, so perhaps this aspect was pursued to the detriment of equally or possibly more important aspects of the human/machine interface.

Computer Workstation Variables

Similar adoption of standards cannot be readily applied to much more esoteric aspect of neurological interaction with a system. For example, although it provides a very good framework to predict and test how an operator will interface with a HMI, Multiple Resource Theory doesn’t provide the level of certainty available from physical ergonomic models. Each aspect needs to be tested according to the many variables which could arise and the neural adaptability inherent in the human which makes them so important to the command and control function.  That’s why the non-physical human interaction field is so interesting to us practitioners (and perhaps perplexes many physical scientists who cannot seem to grasp the notion that humans cannot be treated as a simple probability or linear contributor in their decision models).

So while drone technology will enhance capability, it will only do so effectively if there is a requisite paradigm shift in how the interface is designed to incorporate the more difficult ‘neural ergonomic’ aspects described above.  Perhaps we can finally move away from the tyranny of standards which are sometimes adopted without further thought for the equally important sensory, perceptual and cognitive aspects which we pesky Human Factors types are constantly trying to highlight to our seemingly dullard peers in other fields, sometimes with, but unfortunately many times without success.

Vehicle Displays

September 10, 2012
Driver in a Mitsubishi Galant using a hand hel...

Driver in a Mitsubishi Galant using a hand held mobile phone violating New York State law. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I went to a workshop the other day and heard that a major vehicle manufacturer had adopted the use of touch screen control panels for all of their products.  The speaker had been employed to study the human factors associated with these. His talk was very disturbing – drivers needed more visual attention to use these things effectively as they needed fine motor control (and therefore visual attention) to press the correct area on the screen for their selection, especially if the vehicle was pitching due to the road surface or other conditions.  It made me wonder what bright spark in the company had decided that these displays were a good way to go.  When we are trying so hard to reduce mobile phone and texting use because of the clear and significant problems they pose to road safety, we have a vehicle manufacturer that decides to integrate something into the vehicle which will undo everything that road safety authorities have so far done in this area due to a lack of understanding of the issues involved.

I thought that we had learned from the initial BMW iDrive that technology for its own sake is not necessarily the way to go.  It speaks volumes that BMW now have a very much enhanced vehicle control system which includes haptic feedback so that there is nowhere near the impact on visual resources that the original design had.  And that’s good as the more visual attention is focused on the road, the safer all users will be (put it this way – if a driver is not looking at the external visual field there is no way that they can perceive and react to a potentially dangerous situation).

It made me call to mind a conversation with an engineer who was working on electric vehicles.  He said that they would incorporate noise into the car to emulate the typical sound of current cars.  He insisted that it was the only way to retain safety for pedestrians. It called to mind the situation where a man with a red flag used to signal the approach of ‘horseless carriages’ when they were first introduced in the late nineteenth century.  Why would you introduce noise into the environment when it may not be necessary – surely that is one of the advantages of electric vehicles?  Imagine a city with substantially less road noise (and perhaps more liveable?) as a result.

One disadvantage of course is that the auditory warning provided to pedestrians and other users would not be present, but I’m sure that we have the technology to overcome this aspect.  The almost ubiquitous use of entertainment devices by commuters effectively attenuates these auditory cues in any case as has been tragically illustrated by pedestrians being killed because they stepped out in front of approaching vehicles whilst listening to music from their iPods. However, DSRC network technology could easily provide warning information to pedestrians if it is set up correctly and integrated with the mobile communication networks.  Of course, there would need to be considerable human factors input so that any system is designed properly.

I suppose that all of these examples illustrate the importance of the latter aspect.  It would have been great if the vehicle manufacturer described at the beginning of this post had taken the step of actually testing their idea from a human perspective prior to making such a retrograde decision.  We now have vehicles which inherently create a similar problem to mobile phone use and texting problems that we are trying so hard to overcome – a safety time bomb in each of the vehicles produced by this company. Similar to faulty brakes or steering as it may have the same effect on road safety

One can only hope that the engineers, accountants and marketers who seem to rise to the top of these companies will realise the importance of fundamental human factors in their future products. Not just aspects such as usability testing, but the integral way that humans sense, perceive and process information.  Perhaps we can then apply a safety systems approach to road use and reap the benefits of eliminating the contributors to potential incidents (such as poor vehicle controls) before they occur.