I want my students to understand why they are developing programs and how the solutions impact the world around them.

Chris Dancy

If you've ever played video games like Call of Duty Black Ops, you've encountered intelligent agents — computer programs that gather and deliver information. The more data your fellow troops or enemy soldiers gather about your likely response patterns, the "smarter" their actions get.

Beyond the world of gaming, intelligent agents have lifesaving potential, says Professor Christopher Dancy, computer science, who develops computer software and intelligent agents in the cognitive science area. His primary interests are creating agents that think and behave in the same way as humans under normal, and sometimes dangerous, circumstances.

For instance, Dancy has worked on medical-related simulations where intelligent agents are coded to become virtual patients who experience heart attacks. Medical personnel in training make decisions and perform procedures on the agents. The virtual environment might look similar to SimCity, the popular video game.

"If you are testing a trainee's response to a heart attack in real life, it's a lot more dangerous given that a human patient would be at risk," says Dancy. "In a virtual environment, we can test trainees' responses, how they might use a defibrillator, and the various stimuli that might impact their decisions." He also studies the impact of sleep deprivation on decision-making and response times for use in virtual environments.

The key is understanding human behavior, Dancy adds. He has conducted experiments with students where he's observed their decision-making capabilities by asking them to play a game. He records how they respond to the environment around them and the decisions they make. "With experiments in human behavior, we are able to develop quantitative theories on the way people react. The best way to measure if the simulation is successful is if the software is actually mimicking how the students responded," he says.

Dancy hopes students taking his courses will develop a computational mindset to solve problems in a certain way. "When you have software to fall back on, it sometimes makes it a little easier to see solutions because we interact with computers daily. I want my students to understand why they are developing programs and how the solutions impact the world around them."

Posted Oct. 7, 2015