Cindy Dominguez working on her laptop while outdoors

Educating Others on the Value of Human-Machine Teaming in Systems

By Jim Chido

Cindy Dominguez

"The application of automation, artificial intelligence [AI], and autonomy in systems has ramped up over the past few years," observes Cindy Dominguez, a cognitive engineer at MITRE. "It's more important than ever to ask questions like, 'Why do people need these systems? How will they use them?' And, 'How can we design systems, using these technologies, so that they'll act like teammates?'"

The 20-year U.S. Air Force veteran joined MITRE in 2014, after 10 years in private industry. She describes her recent work for one of our Department of Defense sponsors as a cognitive engineering and evaluation project, in which cognitive evaluation methods were applied to the agile design and evaluation of a complex system.

"Let's take the area of satellite command and control as a practical application of artificial intelligence and human-machine teaming [HMT]," she proposes. "There are ongoing efforts to apply more sophisticated technologies to this area to improve the operator's ability to fly satellites, command and control them, and operate missions while protecting and defending them.

"However, we need to look at it from the operator's point of view," Dominguez cautions. "They would not accept a system telling them what action to take or putting them in a role of a 'watcher.'"

Operators want a system that helps them keep track of their mission and provides them options, with on-demand rationale and data behind those options, she continues. "That way, the operator can assess which option is best for the circumstances.

"If we don't design a system to make it a teammate and to behave in tune with how the operator is going to use it, that system will end up on the shelf. And we'll have wasted a lot of money."

Embarking on a "Big Adventure"

When she was a high school student, Dominguez wanted to be a pilot. On the advice of a guidance counselor, she applied to the Air Force Academy and was accepted. "It was a total shot in the dark, to go from the small town of Randolph, Maine, to the Air Force Academy. It was a big adventure."

By the time she graduated, however, she wasn't qualified to be a pilot because of her eyesight. "But it was really OK," she recalls. "I majored in human factors and was excited about applying it in the Air Force."

During her time in the Air Force, Dominguez earned two master's degrees, the first in systems management from the University of Southern California, the second in experimental psychology from California State University. She later completed a Ph.D. in human factors psychology from Wright State University.

She praises her adviser at Wright State for allowing her to do a field study on laparoscopic surgeons and the decisions they make in the operating room, and for helping his students make connections in their fields.

"He showed me how to be a door opener, and also why stimulating rich interaction across colleagues and disciplines is so important."

Supporting People Making Decisions in Life-or-Death Situations

"Human factors is a very broad discipline with a lot of sub-disciplines," Dominguez says. "The piece I’ve focused on is trying to ensure that technology is designed to help people make decisions when it really counts."

She moved into the area of decision support during her time in the military. "I felt that was where the rubber hit the road: How can we support people to think and act in the complex environments we've put them in, life-or-death situations?"

While working on an Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, she met a few MITRE employees whom she came to like and respect.

After time out in industry, "I wanted to be back on the government's side of the table," she says. "And MITRE's role as an operator of FFRDCs offers that trusted advisership. That resonated with me.

"I care about the military and the government. I liked what I learned about MITRE."

The MITRE employees were equally impressed and helped bring her on board.

Evangelizing the Power of HMT in Systems

"At MITRE, I feel we're always wondering, 'How can we do things better?' It's a learning environment."

Dominguez helps her colleagues learn how to apply HMT and AI in their sponsor work through the MITRE Institute class she co-teaches with fellow cognitive engineer Patty McDermott, whom she describes as her "partner in crime." (The MITRE Institute is our internal training center, part of our commitment to professional development.)

"Many people at MITRE don't realize we have well-structured guidance, such as our HMT systems engineering guide," Dominguez explains. "We share these messages because they're important. A lot of folks here are involved in the technological aspects of autonomy and AI, in their work and research.

"Using cognitive engineering and applying HMT methods enables us to realize the mission value of the technology we're developing. It creates value for the people at the sharp end of the spear."

"We want our systems to be like our cellphones, which have all this beauty and fun attached to elements of the interface," she says. "We're working to translate that into excellent functions that connect to what people need to do and reflect an understanding of their mission."

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