Cognitive Avatar? Exploration at Sandia Labs

Imagine a world where a machine creates a 'virtual you' by modeling how you think and your expertise on a subject. Or one where your car’s computer appreciates your driving skills and compensates for your limitations.

Sandia researcher Rob Abbott uses a joystick and plays the role of a student in a training exercise driving an amphibious assault vehicle simulator used by the Navy and Marines. The second monitor is an instructor/operator application called CDMTS. In the background is a thermal image of a student's face used for investigating biometrics to monitor the student in various ways including the level of engagement and focus of attention. (Credit: Photo by Randy Montoya)

That’s the world Sandia National Laboratories has entered full throttle through its Cognitive Science and Technology Program (CS&T).

A revolution is at hand, says Chris Forsythe, member of the Labs’ cognition research team. It’s not one of just better guns and weapons for national security. Instead, "it’s a revolution of the mind — of how people think and how machines can help people work better."

Focus on individual

A large portion of Sandia’s program today focuses on the uniqueness of the individual interacting with others and with machines. It involves using machines to help humans perform more efficiently and embedding cognitive models in machines so they interact with users more like people interact with one another. The result is the ability for researchers to take advantage of the basic strengths of humans and machines while mitigating the weaknesses of each.

Cognitive projects and research at Sandia span a whole gamut of areas, ranging from student training to assisting with Yucca Mountain licensing, from designing “smart” cars to using video-like games to train military personnel, and from determining how neurons give rise to memory to global terrorist threat detection.

The initial decision for Sandia to develop cognitive technologies is based on the belief that "there are numerous positive impacts cognitive systems technologies can have on our national security," says Russ Skocypec, senior manager of Sandia’s Human, Systems, and Simulation Technologies Department.

Today’s conflicts, he says, are unlike others over the past century. Although all wars are driven by humans, major influences on the outcomes have differed. World War I was a chemists’ war, World War II a physicists’ war, and the Cold War an economic war. Today, he believes, "we are engaged in a human war that is influenced primarily by individual human beings rather than technology or bureaucracy."

That is why he considers it appropriate for Sandia, a laboratory with national security as its mission, to use its resources to better understand the minds of this country’s adversaries, as well as to use machines to enhance the Labs’ abilities to recognize patterns, deal with massive amounts of data, solve perplexing problems, and perform complex activities.

While Sandia dipped its toes in cognitive research in the late 1990s, the Labs’ real effort in the area started in 2002 when the program won an internally funded LDRD grand challenge. Based in part on the success and path set by the grand challenge in 2005, the former Mission Council — a group that consisted of senior Sandia vice presidents — selected cognitive science and technology (CS&T) as a research focus area for the Labs.

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