Virginia Dignum

Interview with Dr Virginia Dignum

Department of Information and Computing Sciences
Universiteit Utrecht, Utrecht, PO Box 80.089, 3508TB, The Netherlands
Personal website

What do you think cognitive systems are?

I would say they are artificial systems which have some kind of behaviour which if you see people doing it you would think that that was making sense: being rational or showing intelligent behaviour. So they're are systems which of course interact with people and which are built in a psychological plausible way. In some sense similar to people.

What is your area of research within Cognitive Systems?

I work mostly on multi-agent systems using intelligent agents. In particular I am interested in organisational modelling and simulation for teams of humans and agents working together for a specific task.

Why did you become a researcher?

After I did my masters long ago, more than 20 years ago, I went to work as a consultant and an information analyst for big companies. Only after I had worked in industry for about 14 years I came back to do research. My main motivation was that I was getting more and more interested in really dealing with the deep issues behind all kinds of problems. If you are a consultant usually you have a few weeks to solve a problem and then move to the next one. I was starting to realise that there are a lot of issues which we are trying to just put under the carpet and I got very interested in trying to understand those issues. So that was my motivation to become a researcher.

How did you get into Cognitive System research?

Like I said, I was working in organisations mostly as a consultant, analysing how people work or do not work together, how can you improve organisation efficiency, and how can you make people interact better in organisational settings. And of course, then you start seeing a lot of issues about how people behave and how people do things or not do things. If you want to understand that better, if you are trying to model that, then I think it is quite a natural choice to get into cognitive systems.

Where did you study and what subjects did you study?

I did a master in mathematics at the University of Lisbon in Portugal. Then I did another master in computer science in Amsterdam at the Free University. Both of them around 20 years ago (now 2008). Then finally I did my PhD in multi-agent systems at University of Utrecht in 2004. So there is a 15 year gap between the two.

Can you describe briefly how you are doing what you do? What are the techniques used in your research?

I use a lot of simulation models involving software tools and all kinds of modelling frameworks I am also quite interested in the formalisation of those things so I use a lot of logic and semantics to try to give the models and the system that I develop formal grounding. On the other hand I'm doing increasingly more empirical research, (which I have not done much at the beginning) with which I try to validate what we come up with our simulations against the behaviour and the things which happen in the real world. Which we call the real systems.

Can you tell me why they are important?

Simulations techniques are very handy because you cannot just go and look inside peoples head. So what you can try and do, as best as you can, is to model design tools and design systems which can then provide some plausible behaviour like people. Of course you cannot ask people to do things again and again and see if the behaviour is changing. So computational simulations help us to get an idea of what we are getting to. We do a lot of work on designing the simulations for training. For example: the fire brigade, or the manager of the fire brigade, has to learn how to make decisions under pressure at fire scenes.

We develop simulations that can help training the people in a controlled setting behind the computer. In those kinds of things you can not just put out the fire all the time to check weather they do the best they can. Of course there are a lot of things which you do not have in the simulation which you have in real-life. At least we try to get the behaviour similar, the decision making behaviour as good as possible, in the simulation so that people act more efficiently in the real situations.

What are the major implications of your work? Who will benefit from your research / techniques?

Maybe the fire brigades? At this moment I am involved in a big research project around simulations for training and I do think that if we really get some results, big things coming out of it, then there will be a lot of benefits for everybody. The fire brigades an obvious one because we are working with them, but it would also be useful for crisis management and to create better models to help people understand better what they do and what are the effects of their decisions.

What skills do you think are most important to a Cognitive Systems researcher?

It is very important to be able to combine and to understand many different issues, things from many different disciplines, from artificial intelligence, to psychology, to sociology, to ... Not that I am an expert in all those things. You do have to have some openness of yourself to be able to take in the different points of views from the different disciplines and not be too strict on your own discipline and stick to your things. You have to be able to try unknown things, for instance combine different issues in one model. There are not so obvious most times. It is also important to have analytical skills to be able to put all those things together.

What do you think is most satisfying about Cognitive Systems research?

For myself I think what gets me the kick in it is to get insight and get some glimpse and understanding how people react, how complex systems behave and get an understanding of those things. Of course it would still be a very small understanding of the whole of life's complex situations but getting the feeling "yeah!", when I see some new links here and I understand now better how this direction, how this group works. This kick is what I think is the most appealing.

What do you consider is the most challenging about being a Cognitive Systems researcher?

I do not know, getting your projects funded maybe. There are a lot of problems which are not solved yet.  

What do you think are the main challenges for the future?

One thing, I do not know if it is the main one but one thing that interests me a lot, is that there are two camps in the field. There are people that think that cognitive systems mean that you have to build systems which are as similar as possible to the biologic and neurologic behaviour of the brain. There is also the field in which people say: well it does not really matter how the representation is as long as the behaviour that comes out of that representation is realistic and plausible in a human kind of view. So, you have the intentional rational models on one side, and the more neurobiological models on the other side. I think we do not understand the two different fields. We do not understand enough of each other.

There are several discussions or debates associated with Cognitive Systems research.

Could you mention issues relating to your work?

One important issue in what we are doing at this moment is related to learning from simulations. We are doing simulations which are basically computer based 3D environments and must be able to understand how we can transfer what we learnt from those simulations to the real world. For example, firemen learn how to put out fires in all those simulations, but how can we guarantee that they apply what they learn to work as well in the real world. That is, the question is: how realistic are the simulations, how effective is it what people perceived there and how does it translate to the real world. That is an important issue which at least here we do not really have much of fundamental answers for.

Thank you!

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