Some geeks live in the lab. Others live on an entirely different planet - like Mars. Well, almost like Mars. Meet Kim Binsted
, our featured Techie of the Month. Kim is an associate professor at the University of Hawaii's Information and Computer Sciences(ICS) department. Binsted is also a co-investigator at the UH-NASA Astrobiology Institute
. She studies how people interact with machines, computers and the surrounding environment. In other words, Binsted is a user interface expert and a specialist in so-called human factors. Unlike most UI experts, Binsted's customers are astronauts and astrobiologists.
She has the extremely cool task of figuring out how to design new types of interfaces that help the people who study biology and space. Binsted is a principal researcher in the Computational Astrobiology Lab (CAL). The CAL is housed in ICS at UH Manoa but primarily serves the UH-NASA Astrobiology Institute. "CAL arose out of the observation that astrobiologists, while being excellent researchers, frequently do not make use of computational tools and innovations," says Binsted on her faculty page.
Some projects that Binsted has worked on to reduce this gap have included: a web interface to the Deep Impact observation database; a telescope scheduler with a web-based interface that allows high-school students to request observations on a 31-inch telescope at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona; an evolutionary simulation tool to explore a range of environmental scenarios to which intelligent behaviors (adaptation on an individual time-scale, communication over generations, etc.) are adaptive; and a system for building a network of hypotheses relevant to SETI (an acronym for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Project) message decoding.
Binsted is not just a space geek. The multi-talented researcher also has performed sophisticated work on computational humor, an area called Entertaining and Affective Intelligent Interfaces. In this area she is part of a team that is building a system designed to recognize sub-vocalized speech detected by electro-myogram sensors placed on the throat of a human speaker. The ultimate result of this research may be the ability to help computers better portray and understand humor and to digitize and categorize the sub-vocal signals of people. As if that weren't enough, Binsted is developing a chatbot to support and augment second-language learning with entertaining, accessible, automated conversation.
So back to the Mars thing. Binsted was on the six-person team that went to Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic in the summer of 2007. The team lived in a 1,000 square foot isolation lab and simulated extra-planetary habitation in an exercise designed to grok what a three-year mission to Mars might actually be like from a human point of view. (For very detailed insights, check out her blog, Mars Ho!
). That mission has already produced a wealth of insights in an area that was poorly understood. "There just hasn't been a lot of quality human factors data collected to date on how people behave in space," says Binsted.
During her time at Devon Island, Binsted probably showered less than any UH professor ever on a daily average basis (quite a record, no?). This dry period was part of the team's experiment to see how little water they could use each day without sacrificing safety and health or sanity. The verdict? "We did it on only 12 liters per day. That was half what NASA recommends for space missions," says Binsted. The average North American uses roughly 200 liters of water per day, as a point of comparison.
As if forced Navy showers for three years will not be bad enough, Binsted's first-hand experiences taught her there might be a flat-out astro-rebellion over what passes today for extra-terrestrial eats "Right now all the space food is prepared food. It's nutritionally wonderful and carefully calibrated. But on a three-year mission to Mars, menu fatigue is going to be a real issue," says Binsted, who believes this could actually be a real problem. "For crews on isolated research stations in Antarctica and on long submarine missions, food becomes really, really important. It's also an excellent way of providing social cohesion -- celebrating birthdays, anniversaries and the like. Food can help with other psychological problems such as social isolation. For practical reasons you are not going to have people baking from scratch. But you can imagine that people will have pasta and sauce and decide how to combine them or maybe have ready made cake-mix with shelf-stable frosting. We're looking at that level of customization," says Binsted. In other words, Betty Crocker meets Buzz Aldrin.
At present Binsted is on sabbatical from UH and working at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). There she is studying user factors to help Canada with its upcoming space missions. When we spoke to Binsted, she had just spent the day doing underwater egress training and high altitude hypoxia training as part of a Bombardier outreach program to better learn about human factors in these sorts of extreme situations. Binsted should be coming back to Hawaii in a few months to resume her roles at ICS and the NAI. We can't wait to hear about her adventures...but we do hope she showers before then.