A Computer That Cuts You Some Slack

Researchers at MIT and Tufts have developed a computer interface that can recognize when a person is multitasking, using a wearable brain scanner called a functional near-infrared spectroscopy sensor, and then modify the system to make it easier. From my most recent piece for Technology Review:

For an experiment, Treacy Solovey and her team incorporated Brainput into virtual robots designed to adapt to the mental state of their human controller. The main goal was for each operator, capped with fNIRS headgear, to guide two different robots through a maze to find a location where a Wi-Fi signal was strong enough to send a message. But here’s what made it tough: the drivers had to constantly switch between the two robots, trying to keep track of both their locations and keep them from crashing into walls.

As the research subjects drove their robots toward the strongest Wi-Fi signal, their fNIRS sensors transmitted information about their mental state to the robots. The robots, for their part, were programmed to focus on a state of mind called branching, in which a person is simultaneously working on two goals that require attention. (Previous studies have correlated certain fNIRS signals to this sort of mental state.) When the robots sensed that the driver was branching, they took on more of the navigation themselves.

Not surprisingly, the robots, in autonomous mode, were a big help to the drivers who were multitasking. But the researchers also found that if the robots went into their autonomous mode (which wasn’t optimized) when the driver wasn’t multitasking, performance declined. The lead researcher Erin Treacy Solovey of MIT says, “Overall, we showed that autonomy was helpful only when it was well-matched with the user’s cognitive state.”

This sort of system could be increasingly important as our cars become more computerized and assume more of the decision-making for us. It might not be too far fetched to imagine a feature in a car that seamlessly takes over when your mind starts to wander during traffic. Rush hour might never be the same.

The link to the TR story is here:

A Computer Interface that Takes a Load Off Your Mind

The paper is here:

Brainput: Enhancing Interactive Systems with Streaming fNIRS Brain Input

Erin Treacy Solovey’s website is here:



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