Kirlik Works at the Intersection of Technology and Cognition

From a study of fantasy baseball league players to contributing to the design of the first World Trade Center building rebuilt following Sept. 11, Alex Kirlik's research involving human factors is wide-ranging.

Sitting in his second floor niche in the Beckman Institute, Alex Kirlik gestures with a broad, sweeping arc of his right arm, pointing out the typical trappings of the modern office environment. In his office are the requisite computer components such as display screens and hard-cased processors, as well as other manmade artifacts like a table lamp, and pages and pages of paper in book, journal, and printout form. Kirliks gesture concludes with a forefinger pointing at the sole of his shoe.

"Look around here and I can't find anything except for maybe some dirt on the bottom of my shoe that is part of the same environment in which Homo sapiens evolved," Kirlik said. "We have radically altered the environments in which we live, and I firmly believe that a relevant and important area of inquiry in psychology, cognitive science, social sciences generally, is trying to gain an understanding of the interdependence of human cognition, human behavior, and the designed environment."

Kirlik's view is that the interdependence he describes is symbiotic: technology isn't simply an end-product of human intelligence; it also serves to mediate peoples interactions with their environments and that process affects cognition and behavior. Understanding those interactions and the technology that supports them is at the heart of Kirlik's discipline of human factors.

"Certainly I belong to a large and growing research community of people who do believe that there is a very intimate interplay between human cognition and behavior and the technological tools and support that we have available in our environments," Kirlik said.

Technology has increasingly shifted the domains in which we use and execute judgment and decision-making to ones in which our interaction with the environment is mediated in some way by information technology. -Alex Kirlik

Kirlik, a member of Beckman's Human Perception and Performance Group, is acting head of the Human Factors Division at the University of Illinois. The program began in the 1940s with a focus on the human factors aspect of aviation, but now covers a number of areas involving human interaction with technology. Kirlik said about one-half of the Human Factors Division faculty earned their Ph.D.s in psychology, about one-quarter earned theirs in engineering, and the rest are from fields such as computer science and information science.

"I'm interested in all aspects of human interaction with technology," said Kirlik, whose Ph.D. is in industrial engineering. I view technology very broadly as the constructed world. We live today in the United States in almost entirely constructed eco-niches."

That ecology of technology can be found in a cubicle filled with desks and chairs surrounded by office equipment, in a cockpit brimming with electronic flight systems, or in a stairwell lit by exit signs and colored light bulbs. That means Kirliks research accommodates a broad range of topics and settings. His recent work has looked at decision-making and judgment through a study involving pilot decisions on runways and another project testing expert judgment using fantasy baseball league players.

Kirlik's research into human factors isn't just for scientific purposes. He believes scientists should be involved members of the community, and that belief is one reason he joined a team advising the architectural firm that designed the first building rebuilt after Sept. 11. The 7 World Trade Center building, destroyed in the attacks that brought down the Twin Towers, was rebuilt and completed in 2006 with human factors taken into account in emergency exit situations, thanks in large part to Kirlik and a team from the University of Illinois.

The human factors elements that Kirlik helped bring to the finished project included using photoluminescent paint and additional lighting in stairwell areas, as well as expanding stairwell width above code to aid in emergency exit. He based his recommendations on known human factors research in those areas and upon his reading of a FEMA report on building performance issues during 9/11.

The events of 9/11 also factor into his work in another way. The attacks added an element of uncertainty a topic that is a focus of Kirlik's research into human judgment to the lives of Americans.

"I would speculate that events such as 9/11 have created perhaps increased interest in living with uncertainty, coping with uncertainty, and in understanding that we often live in times and in situations of irreducible uncertainty, however much we might not want to believe that," Kirlik said.

Kirlik's research has shown the need for including uncertainty into formal models of human judgment. A project by Kirlik and his students that looked at how pilots navigate runways and taxi surfaces at airports developed a successful computer model that mimicked human cognition and performance, proving its validity by making the same mistakes that pilots did on the runways at Chicago's O'Hare airport.

The project's computer modeling techniques also proved useful for the groups study involving players managing fantasy Major League Baseball teams. Kirlik's group recruited experienced fantasy players on campus, provided them with statistical and graphical visualization techniques, and then matched them against unaided players and experts from ESPN.

"The techniques are grounded in the insight that a players performance each year results from a combination of skill and chance," Kirlik said. "Because of this, it is a statistical fact that very high performance one year (above the league mean) will be followed by lower performance the next year, and very low performance (below the mean) will be followed by higher performance the next. We used visualization based on statistical modeling to make this abstract idea concrete and intuitive to our participants."

So far, that approach has shown to beat the experts.

"Based on a preliminary analysis of the data from the first 75% of the current MLB season, our study participants with our model-based and visualization aids outperformed the participants who did not have such aids and outperformed the ESPN experts," Kirlik said.

The results, he said, indicate that the ESPN experts "do not at all regress their judgments to the mean, even though performance from year to year is not nearly completely predictable; it is often unpredictable."

Kirlik said this research is related to the well-known work of Nobel prize-winning researcher Daniel Kahneman and his former colleague Amos Tversky on human biases in judgment and decision-making.

"I would hardly be the first person to comment on the fact that many people have difficulty with the notion of reasoning under uncertainty," Kirlik said. "People sometimes not only don't adapt well to uncertainty: in some cases people take many actions, including deluding themselves, to try to believe that there is more certainty in their worlds than there really is."

In 2006, Kirlik was asked to edit and contribute to the inaugural edition of the Human-Technology Interaction Series published by Oxford University Press. This first edition, called Adaptive Perspectives on Human-Technology Interaction, received praise from Stuart Card, a co-founder of human-computer interaction at Xerox PARC, and noted psychologist Robert Sternberg of Tufts.

Kirlik said the book is one of his proudest accomplishments because "it represents my collaborative research with a wide range of my graduate students over the last 12 to 14 years and colleagues in other laboratories."

Sternberg asked Kirlik to contribute a chapter to the book Intelligence and Technology. The chapter, titled "Work in Progress: Reinventing Intelligence for a Reinvented World," explored the implications of Kirlik's research program for a broader view of intelligence. Kirlik said Sternberg is famous in psychology for trying to expand the concept of intelligence to include important cognitive functioning aspects not measured by IQ tests. The theory behind the work is that human interaction with tools and technology is an essential aspect of intelligence.

In the article, Kirlik wrote, "our understanding of intelligent functioning can surely be no greater than our understanding of the environments we inhabit, and the manner in which we are connected to them." The piece helps to explain the central themes of Kirlik's work.

"From the time of Benet and others who initiated the study of human intelligence, intelligence has always been construed as effective adaptation to the environment," Kirlik said. That has played out in psychological research in terms of rapidly and correctly answering questions on intelligence tests. This, in my view, is only part of the story because in our everyday lives we have more choices than simply to solely adapt to our environment. We can shape our environments, in addition to adapting to them."

Examples of the role advanced technology plays in shaping and mediating our environment can be found, Kirlik said, in many important jobs in society.

"You have stockbrokers, hurricane forecasters, air traffic controllers, nuclear power plant operators staring at displays, and people in the bowels of an Aegis cruiser for the U.S. Navy staring at displays, looking at blips on a screen trying to identify friend versus foe," Kirlik said. "Once we perceived, made decisions, and made judgments in direct interactions with the environment. But technology has increasingly shifted the domains in which we use and execute judgment and decision-making to ones in which our interaction with the environment is mediated in some way by information technology.

"So if we want people to be effective in judgment and decision-making, we need to know more about the processes of judgment and decision-making and how we can support those better through the design of information technology and automation for those workplaces."

Kirlik said he realizes that many in psychology and neuroscience take different approaches to understanding cognition and intelligence and that many in the psychological sciences believe that the changes humans have made to their environment are largely irrelevant because our brains have not changed much during the time in which man has reshaped his world.

Kirlik said people in his field believe that the relationships between the environment and our brains are worthy of investigation and that "to understand human behavioral performance, in particular to enhance or support human cognition and performance, we have to know more about the interaction of internal cognition and the external supports, props, technologies, and tools that we interact with on a daily level.

"I would simply say that there is room for all of us."

All three of Kirlik's degrees are from Ohio State in industrial engineering, a field that satisfied both his interests in doing work that could help people and his father's desires that his son get a job with decent pay. His family's background is in the social sciences.

"The discussions around the dinner table were about political events and improving our welfare. I saw engineering as really detached from that," Kirlik said.

But a lab demonstration by an industrial engineer at Ohio State showing that blue lights on police cars could be seen better than other colors and therefore save lives steered him in that direction.

I saw that there was this one flavor of engineering, called industrial engineering, where one of the core areas was designing an effective coupling of people and technology systems," Kirlik said.

As a professor and researcher, he extends that desire to help people beyond teaching and applications to advocating for science.

"We wear many hats as faculty members, educators, and researchers," Kirlik said. "We certainly would all love to write those papers that are still read a hundred years from now, but only a few of us have the opportunity to do that. But along the way I think that we can certainly play a role in bettering society. That not only has the effect of making the world a better place in which to live, hopefully, but it also educates the public regarding scientific literacy and in the value of science."