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June 04, 2021 Friday 07:21:16 AM IST

Essential Skill of the Future: Holding Attention While Monitoring Devices

With more automation taking place, one of the essential skills that mankind may have to master for survival is how to hold one's attention while monitoring the tasks performed by fully programmed devices. 

A study funded by Australian Research Council and done by KIT-Macquarie Brain Research Laboratory showed situations when human attention drops off dramatically over a period of time. 

The experiment involved 21 subjects whose head was connected to Magnetoencephalography Machine (MEG). The subjects monitored several dots moving on trajectories towards a central fixed object, but deflecting before making contact. Their job was to press a button to deflect a moving dot if it instead violated its trajectory and continued towards a collission with the central object. The results showed that the less often the dot violated its trajectory, the more likely the participants were to miss it showing that attention dropped off dramatically over time when targets were infrequent. 

The move towards automated and semi-automated systems in high-risk domains such as power-generation, trains and airplanes, not to mention self-driving vehicles, means humans increasingly must pay sustained attention in order to catch infrequent errors, the researchers point out.

“A computer is most often making the decision about who is going where, and keeping track of where everyone is –  but a human has to watch that, and if that computer makes a mistake, a human has to be ready to jump in to fix the error before you get a tragedy,” explains senior author Anina Rich, Professor of Cognitive Science and head of Macquarie’s Perception in Action Research Centre.

The Paddington railway disaster in UK in 1999 killed 31 people and injured more than 400, after a slow response to a stop signal resulted in a train moving 600 metres too far and into the path of an incoming train. 

Researchers have used Electroencephalography (EEG) electrodes embedded in headgear to find out how drivers attention wavers while monitoring a self driven car. Self-driving cars that were able to detect when brain activity showed a dangerous lapse in attention could set off a warning signal, or an emergency braking system, for instance.

“It is not completely out of the question to imagine that when you buy your self-driving car it might come with a built-in EEG cap for you. This sounds futuristic but it’s probably not that far in the future,” according to Anina Rich.