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Rensselaer Professor Wayne Gray Receives Humboldt Research Award


Recognition of Contributions to Cognitive Science Includes Fellowship at Max Planck Institute

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Professor Wayne Gray has been awarded a Humboldt Research Award from the Germany-based Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. The honor includes a fellowship that will allow Gray, a professor in the Department of Cognitive Science and director of the CogWorks Laboratory at Rensselaer, to pursue research at the Max Planck Institute Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition (ABC) in Berlin.

The Humboldt Research Award is granted in recognition of the achievements of a researcher whose fundamental discoveries, new theories, or insights have had a significant impact on their own discipline and who are expected to continue producing cutting-edge achievements in the future.

Gray is a researcher in the fields of computational cognitive modeling, cognitive neuroscience, interactive behavior, cognitive task analysis, cognitive workload, and human error. In his current research, Gray has been studying the selection of strategies that occur in decisions made within a time space between 0.3 to 3 seconds. Such cognitive strategies – termed “heuristics” – are typically made beneath the level of our conscious awareness and deliberate control.

“Fundamentally, I am interested in the elementary units of cognitive control; how cognition, perception, and action come together in real time to do things that are meaningful,” Gray said “An elementary unit might be something as small as pointing to an icon with a mouse, pressing the brake of your car, or retrieving a name from memory in response to a face at a class reunion. Each of these units require cognition, perception, and action to come together and do something within the span of about 1/3 to 3 seconds and each unit is in service of a higher-order goal (e.g., driving to home from work). While we are aware of our higher-order goals, we are often not aware of these elementary units, and we are never aware of how these units are formed. Increasingly, our research has shown that features of the information or task environment of which we are unaware may bias how these elementary units are formed and lead to suboptimal or even maladaptive behavior.”

The Max Planck ABC group follows a similar line of research. According to the ABC website, the center research “addresses a key question: How do humans and other animals make decisions under uncertainty, that is, when time and information are limited and the future is unknown?” The answers to that question may shed light on decisions made in such conditions, and also provide useful models of decision making in similar situations.

As a Humboldt fellow, Gray will spend six months – from January to June 2012 – at the ABC center. Gray said the fellowship is an opportunity to refresh his research goals and expand his contacts.

“The work being performed by the ABC Group at the Max Planck Institute provides an interesting opportunity to test and extend my work and might provide an answer to the question of why a given simple heuristic is selected under one set of circumstances but not under another,” Gray said.

In one example of his current work at the CogWorks Laboratory, Gray studied the choice between cognitive strategies of memory and interaction as subjects attempted to arrange a group of colored squares displayed on a computer screen to match a pattern displayed in another window of the screen.

In the experiment, subjects look at the pattern on one screen, then click a button that reveals a different screen where they choose among colored blocks and click and drag them into place to assemble the pattern. To complete the task, subjects unconsciously choose between two strategies: they can use either a memory intensive approach (attempting to memorize the color and position of several blocks for each glance at the pattern); or an interaction approach (toggling between screens frequently to establish the position of a few blocks in each glance).

The subjects can toggle back and forth between the screens as often as they like, but a control in the system allows researchers to introduce a delay in the switch between screens.

When the delay was short, Gray found that subjects switched frequently between the screens, memorizing the location of only one colored block at a time. But when he increased the delay (or the “cost”) of switching between screens, he found that subjects relied more on memory, memorizing the location of more colored blocks between screen swaps.

“Even when cost goes up just a little bit – you make an object just a little harder to find or to get to – the strategies go more from interaction intensive to more memory intensive,” Gray said. “Our cognitive, perceptual, and motor resources are limited, so that just a little bit more resource use in one task may affect the mix of resources available in other tasks. The limits to our resources and the fact that how we deploy them usually reflects nondeliberate, not conscious, processes, explains why simple tasks such as talking on a cell phone while driving may unintentionally take resources away from more important activities such as responding to changes in traffic.”

The Humboldt fellowship is the most recent honor in a productive career. Prior to joining the faculty at Rensselaer in 2002, Gray worked in the AI Laboratory of NYNEX (now Verizon) Science & Technology Division. At NYNEX he applied cognitive task analysis and cognitive modeling to the design and evaluation of interfaces for large, commercial telecommunications systems. He has also worked at the U.S. Army Research Institute, where he worked on tactical team training (at the Monterey Field Unit) and later on the application of artificial intelligence technology to training for air-defense systems (HAWK) at ARI-HQ in Alexandria, Va. He earned his Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley in 1979.

Gray is a fellow of the Human Factors & Ergonomics Society (HFES), the Cognitive Science Society, and the American Psychological Association (APA). In 2008, APA awarded him the Franklin V. Taylor Award for Outstanding Contributions in the Field of Applied Experimental & Engineering Psychology. He is a past chair of the Cognitive Science Society and the founding chair of the Human Performance Modeling technical group of HFES. He is the executive editor for the Cognitive Science Society’s first new journal in 30 years, Topics in Cognitive Science (topiCS).


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