Published: March 16, 2023 By

Allie AndersonAllie Anderson

Allie Anderson is probing trust in human-robot interactions with a major grant provided to promising early career faculty.

Anderson, an assistant professor in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, has earned a 2023 National Science Foundation CAREER Award. The prestigious program supports early career faculty with potential to become leaders in research and education.

The five-year grant will allow Anderson to investigate an area of increasing importance for society – how humans work over time with autonomous systems – with a specific focus on trust.

“Autonomous systems are increasingly integrated into our lives every day,” Anderson said. “When people over trust technology, they rely on it too much. If people under trust it, they don’t use a system at all or use it inappropriately. Trust also changes over time as you use a system.”

That evolution as someone interacts with an autonomous system on an ongoing basis is a particular emphasis. While there have been studies looking at how people use autonomous systems, they typically involve test subjects in a laboratory environment at a single point in time. Anderson is instead probing these interactions over a longer period and in something closer to a real-world environment.

The study will explore two different industries that already use autonomous systems: package distribution centers and general aviation.

To complete the research, Anderson has partnered with Amazon to conduct interviews and simulations with employees at the company’s distribution centers where package procurement is done with human-robot teams. The aviation component will focus on small plane pilots using upgraded avionics systems to provide guidance and navigation during flight.

“These autonomous systems are already in place, but like everything, they’re imperfect, so people have to decide how to trust them,” Anderson said.

Study participants will be fitted with a series of wearable sensors to collect a wide array of physiological data, including heart rate, respiration, skin conductance, even pupil diameter and blink count.

“The idea is people don’t have to report their response manually. The sensors get the signal from the body and estimate trust so we can know their trust level – how they’re feeling,” she said.

Wearable sensor technology, especially in aerospace applications, has long been a focus of Anderson’s work. She has conducted numerous investigations into human health and performance with an aim to developing technologies to measure and improve the body’s adaptations to extreme stressors, like those experienced in space.

This new research has could help manufacturers develop better autonomous systems in the future.

In addition to the research, the CAREER award also includes an education and outreach component. Anderson will be creating hands-on academic modules for rural Colorado high school math and biology classes.

“Students on the Front Range have a ton of resources, but there’s less on the Eastern Plains and in the mountain regions and I want to help with that,” she said. “These modules will be aligned with state curriculum standards and will focus on how we use math and probabilities, how we use physiological signals and trust.”

It is a particular passion for Anderson, who completed her master’s thesis on rural STEM education.

“I grew up on a farm in Southwest Missouri. We always looked at the stars as a family and it spurred my love of space. In third grade, my teacher did a lesson on astronauts and I was obsessed. I still am,” Anderson said.

The full title of Anderson’s CAREER award is Physiological Modeling of Longitudinal Human Trust in Autonomy for Operational Environments. The research will formally begin in August and run through summer 2028.