Scott is President of NeuroTracker and an expert in it’s application to military performance. Having collaborated with major groups like the US Airforce and US Army, in this interview he shares what he has learned on how NeuroTracker is being used in innovative ways to assess and train military performance, and how these could evolve into solutions for optimizing human performance more broadly.
Q1. Can you first tell us a little about how NeuroTracker came to be applied in the military and what kind of solutions did it offer?
Sure. Originally it was elite American military forces that were the first to adopt NeuroTracker. They were primarily looking to move the needle at the very high end of human performance, so the fact that NeuroTracker was already being used by world class teams in the NFL, NHL, NBA and EPL attracted the interest of groups like the Navy Seals. Their main challenge was actually similar to that in top tier sports; how do you maintain situational awareness and effective decision-making under extreme performance pressures? For example, we worked with USSOCOM to innovate solutions for the extremely high casualty rates in Close Quarter Battles, which are sometimes higher than 50%. You can imagine in those scenarios how quicker and more accurate decisions can save the lives of warfighters.
Q2. That’s interesting, were there any particular applications of NeuroTracker that dealt specifically with CQB risks?
Yes, we collaborated with SOCOM to develop a special version of NeuroTracker Tactical Awareness (NTTA). This is a dual-task training methodology originally developed in sports to train certain skills to be robust under high-cognitive loads. Specifically, we evolved a situational awareness version of NTTA, similar to what we co-developed with the Atlanta Falcons for their MVP quarterback Matt Ryan. For SOCOM’s war fighters we integrated CQB scenes within the NeuroTracker environment, with decision-making demands such as shoot-don’t shoot. They actually ran a case study which showed that the NTTA training transferred to fewer tactical errors in CQB simulation assessments.
Q3. Fascinating. Somehow these kinds of projects later led to pilots performing NeuroTracker during live jet flights, which is pretty wild. What was the purpose of this?
Well this was a fairly large collaborative NeuroTracker study with Collins Aerospace, the Faubert Applied Research Center and the University of IOWA Operator and Performance Lab. It all kind of started with a veteran flight instructor wanting to know how the demands of live flight compare to simulated flight. In fact, in his words, ‘trainee pilots lose half their brains when they get into the air’. The question was how to measure if that was true?
The research team focused on the concept of spare cognitive capacity, that is, when you are doing task A, how much attention do you have left over to perform task B at the same time? If the answer is ‘not very much’, then the conclusion is that task A is highly demanding. NeuroTracker was a great fit for task B because of the objective and sensitive speed threshold measures it produces. The study showed that when performing advanced flight maneuvers, live flight sapped spare cognitive capacity more severely than simulated flight. This might not sound so important, but training jet pilots is extremely costly, so you need to make sure you have the optimal workload for each pilot, on each and every flight.
Of course, the same principle is true for any form of training which is mentally demanding, and for this reason the research won Best Paper for Training at I/ITSEC 2017.
Q4. This year NeuroTracker was accepted into the US Air Force’s Pilot Training Next program after winning the AFWERX competition. How is this different to previous work with pilots?
The Pilot Training Next, or PTN program, broadened the scope of NeuroTracker from assessment, to also incorporate accelerated training and performance enhancement. There is a major shortfall in the recruitment and graduation of new pilots for the US Air Force. For this reason, the primary goal of PTN is to innovate new training methods to speed up the time it takes to train new pilots. For example, this includes using the latest VR-based flight simulators as well as new applications of AI and analysis of biometric data.
NeuroTracker was immediately accepted as a complementary part of the overall approach, where training was completed as a component of the SAIC’s Applied Biometrics and Analytics program. This program was led by SAIC’s Cognitive and Mental Performance Coaches, and included other cognitive, psychometric, physical and physiological assessments. Recently another aspect of NeuroTracker’s involvement with PTN has included working with NASA to integrate their expertise for analyzing eye tracking behaviors. We’re also evolving the performance enhancement to incorporate pilot specific dual-tasks for advanced performance training, such as maintaining situational awareness with Air Traffic Control commands while NeuroTracking.
Q5. Is there anything you can tell us about how well the program is going overall?
Usually with the military the answer is no. However, the PTN initiative is purposely leveraging emerging commercial off-the-shelf technologies, so is actually quite open. I can say it has gone very well so far. Even at this stage, NeuroTracker learning rate measures are showing some promising signs of being valuable in predicting the performance levels of students. We’ve also seen some nice indications of training transferring to significant improvements in high-level cognitive functions like working memory.
Based on these initial findings NeuroTracker has now been accepted into the Aviator Training Next program run by the US Army.
Q5. It sounds like there are some cutting-edge applications being developed for pilots, will these be transferrable in any way to other military domains?
Absolutely, although there are some specific applications being developed, the fundamental methodologies driving these have been developed within the last decade. Pilot Training Next and Aviator Training Next programs are certainly leading the way from an industry applications perspective, but I can see these core assessment and training optimization methods being useful for most areas of military performance. For instance, NeuroTracker was recently a finalist for a NATO innovation competition to improve training outcomes for first responders. And we have been invited to present NeuroTracker to a NATO panel which is focused on optimizing warfighter performance at I/ITSEC 2019.
We’re very lucky to have Professor Jocelyn Faubert actively involved in all scientific developments of NeuroTracker applications. In fact, he founded the non-profit Faubert Applied Research Center so that collaborators in any domain can develop industry specific applications of NeuroTracker based on scientific principles, guided by solid research methods. We expect to see applied uses to keep on evolving, as well as translating well across human performance domains outside of the military.
About Scott Kozak
Scott Kozak (MBA), is President of NeuroTracker and Executive Liaison for the Faubert Applied Research Centre (ARC), a non-profit research center dedicated to developing and validating new applications to address unmet needs in human cognition, learning and performance. ARC researchers collaborate with experts and key opinion leaders from renowned academic, government and industry organizations to validate evidenced-based applications of NeuroTracker technologies.
Scott was also Deputy Chair of the National Defense Industry Association’s (NDIA) Human System Division and is an Adjunct Professor at Brown University in the Executive Master of Healthcare Leadership degree program. He has held senior management positions in multinational corporations, start-ups and public-sector organizations.
If you’d like to find out more NeuroTracker being used in Close Quarter Battle training, then check out this article published on Modern Military Training.
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