Pensacola-Based Research Center Develops Cutting-Edge Technologies


Smart Gadgets, Smarter MindsPensacola-Based Research Center Develops Cutting-Edge Technologies to Improve Human PerformanceBy Tim Collie

Think of the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition as the place James Bond might turn for help if his tech support, Q, is on vacation.

Or better yet, the place where Q himself would go to brush up on his skills and touch base with some of the best minds in computer science, mechanical engineering, defense technology, biology and even philosophy.

Since its founding in 1990, the institute has become a leading incubator in Florida for gadgetry and theories that help humans process information faster by enhancing sight, touch, taste and sound. Its scientists refer to the devices and ideas they develop as “cognitive prostheses.”

Situated in several buildings in the heart of Pensacola’s historic district, the nonprofit research center thrives on the premise that artificial intelligence and robotics should enhance human potential, not replace it. And if you think that’s even an issue, you haven’t been paying attention to how intelligent artificial intelligence has become.

“Our overarching vision is of technology empowering people, making people more effective, and in new, specifically cognitive ways,” said the institute’s co-founder, Ken Ford. “This is already happening, of course, but we believe that it can be improved by orders of magnitude, and that we have only begun to scratch the surface.

“We have a particular slant: We want technology to leverage and extend human abilities – to be cognitive prostheses, rather than mechanical rivals,” Ford said. “Our projects aren’t going to put anyone out of work, though they might enable people to get a lot more work done.”

And get it done in Florida. Each world-class researcher helps create up to 10 new high-wage jobs in Pensacola with average salaries of more than $100,000, according to Florida’s Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development. That means a windfall of approximately $1 million for every such researcher who comes aboard – and there are five so far.

Researchers at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition – note that “human” comes before “machine” in the name – have developed cockpit devices that allow fighter pilots to rapidly process information in milliseconds, when it used to take minutes.

They’ve created an exoskeleton that helps a man swim like a fish. They’ve pioneered sensors that send infrared information to the tongue so that a Navy Seal, for example, can find his way through dark underwater currents at night. (The latter also has applications for the video game industry – tools that will allow gamers to better feel the tension of combat in fantasy war games.) None of this research is classified, though some is sponsored by the U.S. military and its occasionally super-secret research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

And when they’re not buried in science fact, these thinkers often mull how to turn science fiction into science fact. Over the years, the institute has hosted researchers who actively discuss concepts such as the virtual-reality “holodeck” on the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” series or ponder Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics – the ones developed so our machine brethren don’t eventually overthrow and replace us.

In addition to obtaining some $26 million in private and government contracts, the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition has become a cultural mainstay by bringing in intellectuals for public forums who would be welcome on any Ivy League campus. They include everyone from journalist Malcolm Gladwell, author of “The Tipping Point,” to former astronauts and leading thinkers in the fields of computers, philosophy and design.

“It’s an extraordinary asset for a community like Pensacola to have,” said Charles Wood, senior vice president for economic development at the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce. “These aren’t just your average scientists. These are people who are at the top of their game.”

The institute has proven to be a huge draw in luring technology companies to Pensacola, Wood said, and Ford and his fellow scientists are quite welcoming to fellow scientists.

“It’s a very compelling story – and yes, one you may not expect to find here,” Wood added. “We don’t hesitate to tell people about it.”

Part of the institute’s mission is to develop concepts that can be spun off or licensed for businesses. The “human-oriented” aircraft cockpit system is one innovation that has been licensed and will be sold commercially. Other cutting-edge projects are not so easily summed up, such as the institute’s work in “biologically inspired computing.”

Basically, it’s highly complex research that involves creating computer systems that can function and operate like living organisms – if one part goes bad, such as a failing limb, the rest of the system adapts and continues on. The research has applications not only in military settings, but in emergency operations like those that were needed in Hurricane Katrina, when dozens of different agencies with different computer systems must work together to save lives, according to institute researcher Marco Carvalho.

“The institute has a unique position – it can combine a number of different disciplines,” said Carvalho, who is heading the branch of the institute being opened in Ocala next year.

“For instance, if I get a project right now, I can bring medical doctors together with cognitive psychologists, computer scientists and engineers – and I can get input from all these different fields,” Carvalho said. “It’s not very common. In most places, your Princetons, your MITs, you find people working on problems in pockets, not talking to each other.”

Much of this is the brainchild of institute co-director Ford, a 21st-century Renaissance man who combines an intellectual’s appetite for innovative science with the entrepreneur’s talent for fundraising and promotion. As a student in philosophy in New Hampshire during the 1980s, Ford became obsessed with the nature of consciousness. How did something as complex as the human mind – or consciousness – arise from the human brain? Why didn’t other organs develop their own minds?

Such questions send some students running from the academy. In Ford’s case, they plunged him into research involving cognitive science and artificial intelligence. After earning advanced degrees in computer science from the University of West Florida and Tulane University, he co-founded the institute with Alberto J. Cañas, its current associate director.

Their goal was simple: take the basic human and use technology to improve on what is already there. If the eye and brain have trouble focusing on multiple gauges in a cockpit, for example, find a way for technology to help that brain determine what’s most important at any given moment. Instead of a robot replacing the pilot, give pilots the robotics to make them better than humans or machines acting alone.

Like any number of inventions incubated by military-sponsored research, the “human-oriented” aircraft cockpit system has been licensed for civilian applications. Eventually, Ford and his researchers hope that many of their applications will find their way into fields ranging from medicine to entertainment. To make this happen, he has built up the institute’s $7 million payroll with leading thinkers and scientist-entrepreneurs from universities and corporations across the United States. Pensacola is now giving high-tech centers such as California’s Silicon Valley, Austin, Texas, and North Carolina’s Research Triangle a run for their money. That’s in addition to the homegrown talent found at Pensacola’s military bases.

Ford has little patience for the gloomy predictions of science fiction authors and even some scientists who foresee a “singularity” when man will merge with, or be replaced by, machines. He seriously doubts that any computer is going to pass the Turing Test – the breakthrough in which a machine tricks a human into thinking it’s also a human – any time soon. There are no Terminators being hatched, and the future should be a lot more promising than “Blade Runner” or “The Matrix.”

“This will never happen. It’s not even very good science fiction,” Ford said. “First, there is not even the remotest hint of a possibility that machines will come close to being this intelligent in the foreseeable future. But aside from that, even if they did, through some technological miracle, why should they want to take over in this way?”

Artificial intelligence, he added, is about “trying to incorporate thinking abilities – cognition – into machines: robots that can see, cars that can drive themselves, software that can help plan complicated projects, or can notice unusual patterns of credit card spending.

“None of this machinery is going to wake up one day and take over the world; no matter how smart we make it, it’s going to just go on doing the job it was built to do, like any other machine,” Ford said.