Of pilots, astronauts and robots

Ian Florance talks to Iya Whiteley, a Human Factors Consultant at SEA Group Ltd

To suggest that Iya Whiteley set out to become a psychologist would be misleading, though at an early age she watched a Hollywood film about scientists experimenting on people’s minds and told her mother ‘I want to do that’. She studied psychology to help answer questions she had first asked herself at school.

Iya’s training in psychology led into sky-diving, studying space travel, flying, scuba-diving, sports, computer science and, most recently, robotics. Her talk is filled with a dizzying variety of references, including Star Trek!

So, where has Iya boldly gone? And where has psychology helped in the journey?

To begin at the end
Iya’s present jobs illustrate her interest  in human–computer interaction. She is Human Factors Consultant at SEA Group Ltd, a company that focuses on defence and aerospace; she is also Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of Computer Science, University of Bath.

‘At SEA I’m leading a European Space Agency funded project to develop psychological support tools and a technical problem-solving tool for astronauts voyaging to Mars. How can you provide the crew with the information, techniques and skills to solve unanticipated problems – in a highly technical and alien environment? The crew will not be able to speak live to mission control, due to the enormous distance between the crew and the Earth.

‘I also explore the questions posed by the development of humanoid robots. My husband Graham works at Elumotion Ltd, a company specialising in the development of robotic hardware that aims to replicate human and biological motion. He was appalled to find the lack of realistic prosthetic hands, and his PhD concentrated on designing one. This experience contributed to the design of a prosthetic hand that is now fitted to many people. Elumotion have since built a full-size upper body of a humanoid robot, and I’m investigating how people interact with it. Human beings are very good at deciding that something is not quite right with another person. So, how do people react to a robot, especially if we make it as human-looking as possible? What are the cues – gestures, slight changes in facial expressions, tilts of the head, ways of speaking – that we pick up? Graham and I are both concerned about how robots will grow in their ability to replicate our movements and develop their interaction style. As they start to learn, how will we view them? What questions will they pose about our image of ourselves? Trust will be a big issue in the growing field of robotics. Not to put too fine point on it, robots that can imitate us creep people out. How can we overcome this? What causes it?’

Returning to the beginning
Iya is a naturalised UK citizen. She was born in the USSR, brought up in Latvia and has worked and studied around the world.‘I was fascinated by school education but I saw a battle between learning something new and exciting about the world through scientific investigation, and education as “memorising and regurgitating facts”. Since I tended to use the former strategy in exams and tests I didn’t do very well! Education should teach you discovery skills and equip you to explore your own questions and learn from what you encounter.

‘I became interested in how people get the information and answers they need when they need them. It still seems miraculous to me that human beings can do this – to successfully complete complex or dangerous tasks, especially when at first glance the circumstances are not familiar. I did lots of sports at school and they provide examples of this phenomenon. Later on I grew interested in extreme sports and took up sky-diving to try to understand how someone thinks and perceives time in such situations.’  

Iya referred to newspaper articles about the pilot who landed his plane on the Hudson River and saved all his passengers. ‘It’s a perfect example of cognitive grace under pressure. I want to know the key to this ability and then to be able to offer this key to everyone who is willing to open their mind to new possibilities.’

Iya’s mother is a teacher of literature. ‘She made me read two hours a day, and I became fascinated with heroes – people who optimised their abilities. This is an abiding interest – I study real-life heroes like Shackleton, their character, their motivation, their aspirations and life path.  I was fortunate to meet Alexey Leonov, the first person to walk in space. Alexey said that he became a pilot just to see the clouds a little closer so that he can draw them better. He used his art skills to scientifically code and document the colour of our planet’s atmosphere from orbit.’

There wasn’t even a psychology course in the school, so Iya had no real understanding of the subject. A Lyceum opened up nearby, offering a wider curriculum and Iya took the entrance exams. After an interview in which she related Bulgakov’s classic Russian novel The Master and Margarita to martial arts philosophy (which she’d studied), Iya was accepted.

‘Psychology and teaching were taught as arts but, to me, psychology is a science. I developed a very specific view of how you learn. You can use any activity to observe and learn – talking or sitting opposite someone, walking down a street or surfing the waves. We make many discoveries while in the process of searching for other answers. That is the exciting part of science! Retaining a child-like curiosity and an open mind are huge benefits to anyone studying psychology.‘People used to say to me that psychologists were “mind-readers” or therapists. Everyone is a natural psychologist. The key difference is that professional psychologists keep a distance between themselves and the phenomena they deal with. They ask more specific questions about what they observe, then develop and test theories about it.’

‘Thinking gets interesting when you know about two disciplines’
After a certificate in psychology and teaching, Iya took a bachelor’s in psychology at the Institute for Social Technology. ‘Before I took my master’s, I had a choice about what to do. I worked part-time for a forensic and clinical psychologist. My employer, who ran a private clinical practice, advised me not to restrict myself too early to a particular field of psychology. I believe this is good advice for psychologists. The breadth and interdisciplinary nature of the subject gives it its richness. At important points in my life I’ve made decisions based on the advice of a mentor. Mentors are very important. This was particularly true when I chose a PhD topic. My advice is to find a subject that excites you and a person who you really want to make this journey with.’

Iya applied to become a military pilot, but the Latvian air force wouldn’t recruit women or Russian nationals at the time. ‘Clinical psychology seemed a good choice. I was interested in the maximisation of abilities in extreme situations – clinical psychology gave me a deeper, more scientific understanding  of how things work, how they can be studied and how they go wrong. It was also a way of keeping doors open to other areas. Thinking gets really interesting when you know about two disciplines and put them together. So I did an MClinPsy with the University of Indianapolis.’

During study breaks, she was a tour guide in the United Arab Emirates (she claims she earned more in a week than her mother could earn in two months as a teacher in Latvia). She then got a job selecting air crew for Emirates Airlines. ‘I’d soaked myself all over with hot, sweet, milky tea (commonly offered on arrival in that part of the world) whilst waiting for the interview. I thought I should treat this interview as a chance to learn to ignore non-important dress issues – after all, they are more interested in my skills.’

The job involved a using psychometrics in a multicultural workforce. It also involved sitting in the cockpit of big airliners. It wasn’t long before Iya was bouncing along in a tiny plane on a desert runway trying to make her first solo landing . ‘I learnt about the use of peripheral vision in psychology and that’s exactly what you do when you level off before touch down to land a plane on “the piano keys”.’

Her PhD was in computer science, undertaken at Swinburne University in Australia, and then at the University of Bath. Why computer science? ‘I’d started reading the International Aviation Psychology Journal. It’s the journal of the Association of Aviation Psychologists founded in 1964. Aviation brings psychology, computer science, engineers and many other disciplines together. I was interested in how pilots make decisions. Increasingly they work in a “glass cockpit” which is all computer screens. They use an electronic flight information system that has elements of autonomy and authority. Watching Emirates’ pilots and the crew work, I’d also grown aware that planes are private, self-organising universes. My PhD was on how you could construct a glass cockpit that can be fitted to the person and how they think, rather than one which insisted the person adapt to the system – something which we’re rather good at.’

Didn’t she need a high degree of computer expertise to take on this area of study? ‘You don’t have to be a programmer to study human–computer interaction. You interpret between engineers, mathematicians, software designers and users. You mediate a number of different languages, and cognitive styles. Pilots, for instance, are fascinating people who constantly calculate “What ifs...?”, what would happen next and how to react in the most efficient and safest way.’

Developing the right hook
At the end of our meeting Iya summed  up her work succinctly. ‘It’s like I’m continually developing the right hook to catch the right fish in people’s heads to understand how they manage to do the amazing things they do. And, in a hugely technologically defined environment, I’ve increasingly become interested in how the information and technical systems around us affect us. Most specifically, how can we adapt technology to enhance human abilities, to the way we work and think rather than vice versa.’

Any advice for people seeking to study the area? ‘It takes a lot of time to study it so find something exciting that will give you momentum.’



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