An Unobtrusive System to Measure, Assess, and Predict Cognitive Workload in Real-world Environments

Bracken, B., Palmon, N., Elkin-Frankston, S., Irvin, S., Jenkins, M., and Farry, M.

Keynote presented at BIOSTEC 2017, the 10th International Joint Conference on Biomedical Engineering Systems and Technologies, Porto, Portugal (February 2017)

Across many careers, individuals face alternating periods of high and low attention and cognitive workload, which can result in impaired cognitive functioning and can be detrimental to job performance. For example, some professions (e.g., fire fighters, emergency medical personnel, doctors and nurses working in an emergency room, pilots) require long periods of low workload (boredom), followed by sudden, high-tempo operations during which they may be required to respond to an emergency and perform at peak cognitive levels. Conversely, other professions (e.g., air traffic controllers, market investors in financial industries, analysts) require long periods of high workload and multitasking during which the addition of just one more task results in cognitive overload resulting in mistakes. An unobtrusive system to measure, assess, and predict cognitive workload could warn individuals, their teammates, or their supervisors when steps should be taken to augment cognitive readiness. In this talk I will describe an approach to this problem that we have found to be successful across work domains includes: (1) a suite of unobtrusive, field-ready neurophysiological, physiological, and behavioral sensors that are chosen to best suit the target environment; (2) custom algorithms and statistical techniques to process and time-align raw data originating from the sensor suite; (3) probabilistic and statistical models designed to interpret the data into the human state of interest (e.g., cognitive workload, attention, fatigue); (4) machine-learning techniques to predict upcoming performance based on the current pattern of events, and (5) display of each piece of information depending on the needs of the target user who may or may not want to drill down into the functioning of the system to determine how conclusions about human state and performance are determined. I will then focus in on our experimental results from our custom functional near-infrared spectroscopy sensor, designed to operate in real-world environments to be worn comfortably (e.g., positioned into a baseball cap or a surgeon’s cap) to measure changes in brain blood oxygenation without adding burden to the individual being assessed.

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To learn more or request a copy of a paper (if available), contact Bethany Bracken.

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