When I heard the explosion, I dropped to the ground. Shrapnel, gravel, and dirt began to fall around me, so I crawled under the nearest vehicle. The shockwave was powerful. I assumed our perimeter had been breached. I loaded my weapon. I hoped that the soldiers with the gear to respond assertively had the right information and that they were already on their way with a plan. I was anxious. Years earlier, when conducting touch-and-go practice landings at remote military airfield, I felt the same anxiety, and it was a similar set of hopes that I could enumerate – that other planes operating in the area would know I was there, and stay on flight paths that didn’t intersect in time and space with mine. When I have had to make decisions about what to do with my own resources, and what sort of insurance to purchase, or whether to form a series LLC or a sole-proprietorship, I’ve had the same feelings. It’s a set of concerns that virtually all humans share, and the questions that arise are always basically the same: Do I know what I need to know? Am I mentally and physically prepared to handle this set of circumstances? How can technology help me avoid catastrophe, and achieve a favorable outcome? Humans depend on our ability to respond appropriately, and that ability is deeply enhanced by the study of the human factor in any given circumstances. Thus, the study of human factors lies near to my heart, as my understanding of the discipline has certainly contributed to my survival in the past, and I believe it plays an integral role in our destiny as a species in the future.
It is because of the role that psychology and human factors have played in my past that I wish to continue my studies formally. My study of aviation revealed that we can avert mishaps through the implementation of best practices gleaned from research. The intersection of advanced machinery and human performance has many secrets yet to be explored and I want to be a part of that. I am especially interested in the ways in which humans will interact with the emerging artificial intelligence beginning to leave the lab and populate our homes in the form of self-driving cars and Digital assistants in the future. The lessons I’ve learned through my experiences with unmanned aerial vehicles and the ways in which people interacted and perceived them can potentially extend to other walks of life, now that my time in the Air Force has concluded.
As I watch my two-year-old son grow, I cannot help but imagine the drastic changes that will undoubtedly occur during his lifetime. He may never have a chance to drive a car or fly on an airplane being directly controlled by a human being. He might encounter a computer that is, in all aspects, much smarter than he. He and his future may even be threatened by machines set upon destructive paths by their creators as an act of terrorism, or even war. This last possibility is of great concern to me, as a father and former intelligence officer. I am a firm believer that the best way to prepare for the future is to have a hand in creating it. I envision using my knowledge of psychology, human factors, geopolitics, and emerging technologies to work with teams of scientists, engineers, ethicists, civil servants, and inventors to ensure the future we are creating is a safe, just, and prosperous one. I imagine that after working in the private sector with established tech companies, I might one day help to write public policy, and eventually return to teach the next generation of designers.
Good design with respect to human factors can not only increase safety, but it is vital to the wellbeing of societies. Connecting people with technology, rather than isolating them, can help fill our basic need for belonging. Belonging and integrating are more important than ever, in an age of globalization and rapid movement of potentially disruptive ideas. Following some of the more radical ideas of futurist thinkers, perhaps good human factors design combined with some of the technologies that are just now emerging will be the key to helping humans stop worrying about our petty differences, and concentrate on fulfilling our other needs in magnanimous fashion. Indeed, if I knew that an artificial intelligence was keeping me safe on the road, I could spend much more time planning how to grow delicious heirloom tomatoes to share with my neighbors. But not yet.
The attack mentioned at the beginning of this statement could have been much worse. Analysis of the explosion revealed that an improvised explosive device had been attached to the exterior of a fuel truck, essentially creating a driving suicide bomb. The device, however, had been attached poorly, so when it detonated, it failed to cause a secondary explosion of the magnitude possible with that much combustible material. I read a report that stated, had the attack gone as planned, the blast wave would have caved in the structure where I worked at the time. I am grateful that, and here to write this because of a very human error in the construction of that bomb. It seems fitting that I pursue further education in human factors psychology to enhance the safety of others.