Measuring the Impossible

September 25, 2006

Brussels, 22 Sep 2006

Measurement underpins science, but how do you measure the subjective? Can science use advances in technology to uncover the quirks and imponderables of the human mind, and how people interact with the world? The answer is that science is trying to. A new set of EU research projects is looking at the interface between different disciplines and the human experience; somewhere between psychology, engineering and physiology comes Measuring the Impossible. Measuring the Impossible projects aim to, amongst other things, quantify 'naturalness'; the psychological reactions to music; objectively measure sound; understand emotional body language; test the reliability of human memory; measure the enjoyment of computer gaming; and more. One could say that they are objectifying the subjective. A collection such as this may seem quirky at first, but results will have a significant impact on emerging technologies, particularly the way in which we interact with the world, and be a boost for EU innovation.

Scientific methods require us to think about why something happens - an hypothesis - and then test that hypothesis. But what if the desired measurements are simply too difficult, too subjective, or cross too many disciplines? New approaches to these seemingly impossible questions will lead to unimaginable refinements in the world around us. Applications are varied, from business to products to manufacturing processes, to the look and feel of the world around us. In short - quality.

In the book 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance', author Robert Pirsig meditated on the idea of quality. '[...] we advanced organisms respond to our environment with an invention of many marvellous analogues. We invent earth and heavens, trees, stones and oceans, gods, music, arts, language, philosophy, engineering, civilization and science. We call these analogues reality [...]. But that which causes us to invent the analogues is Quality. Quality is the continuing stimulus which our environment puts upon us to create the world in which we live,' he writes.

The concept of quality overwhelmed Pirsig, driving him profoundly, but thankfully temporarily, mad. With the use of technology and atypical approaches to established disciplines, blended with more modern sciences like chaos theory, the concept of quality can itself be broken down and analysed, perhaps sparing Pirsig's sanity had he been a researcher today.

Some have coined this approach 'soft' or sensory measurement, to contrast with the 'hard' measurement needed to send satellites into space, measure nanotubes or develop vaccines for the HIV virus. The enthusiastic Carlos Saraiva Martins from the European Commission's DG Research is responsible for the set of Measuring the Impossible projects, a NEST (New and Emerging Science and Technologies) initiative. 'For all multi-dimensional phenomena, you need to know how things are perceived. For example in an airport, you can measure the number of decibels, the frequency of flights, but that may not be how this is perceived by those who live close by. We need to have methodological methods to give the correct answers,' he said.

Applications for this programme are varied, and often come back to quality. Dr Saraiva Martins used the example of fabric, in which he has no expertise but where his wife is highly adept at distinguishing - immediately - the quality of different textiles. 'It [quality] is always subjective, but we can try to understand the fabric itself, put input into the design, to give the feeling you want. This is industrial research for the day after tomorrow.'

Dr Saraiva Martins noted some novel proposals received by the Commission in response to its Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) call for proposals. 'This kind of methodological phenomenon was emerging more and more, measuring intangible assets, such as the intelligence of employees,' he said. 'We had a border, and these projects were judged to be outside the call. All were rejected.'

Dr Saraiva Martins thought that these rejected proposals had more merit than the system allowed for. He felt some of these proposals were onto something - something different and very interesting. 'After external consultations with scientists and three brainstorming workshops, it was evident that NEST could actively react on these approaches, and we included 'Measuring the Impossible' in the European Commission's NEST PATHFINDER initiative,' he said. His appeal was successful, and the call was included, with the remit reading: 'This initiative aims to support interdisciplinary research and novel investigative methods that could present prospects for advancing the measurement of multidimensional phenomena which are mediated by human interpretation and/or perception'

This was the breakthrough. 'Once we launched, the referees could not say 'this was nonsense', and instead evaluated the best of the best,' he says..

Applications may at first glance seem bizarre, but not for Andy Henson, from the UK's National Physical Laboratory, which, as well as measuring the likes of nanotubes and quantum effects, has regularly had to investigate atypical phenomena such as, 'the glossiness of cats, or more typically, a city centre may ask us about how best to light a town, or develop camouflage for military uniforms which would work in the visible and infra-red spectra', he explains. The National Physical Laboratory leads the MONAT (measurement of naturalness) project, having initiated the concept, and will run the open website for the new 'Measuring the Impossible' network, MINET, coordinated by the University of Stockholm.

'The challenging thing is to cut across paths and disciplines,' says Dr Henson. 'A metrologist does not typically speak to a psychologist or a physiologist, in fact we don't even understand each others' language. These projects will bring about a synergy between them, to bring a more rigorous metrological approach deeper into areas where often the best we can do at the moment is panel testing.'

Whilst these types of projects are certainly challenging, the rewards could be considerable. 'A traditional project might look to improve a small part, like a component for an aircraft wing, bringing overall benefits of a fraction of a per cent. But perceived quality is different. If my wife can instantly pick out the best quality fabrics in a shop, then maybe this added value could be designed in,' says Dr Henson, echoing Dr Saraiva Martins. He goes on: 'A product is a binary thing, it has perceived value and sells, or it sits on the rack and the customer turns to a competitor's offering, it's all or nothing. What is more, people will pay a significant premium for quality, but only if they recognise it is there.'

We are only just learning how to factor quality into a product, as an integral part of design. Complexity science made people 'think outside the box'. But sadly, until recently, computational power was simply insufficient to process highly complex information and crunch it to something meaningful. Now, this is both possible and affordable, and those early dreamers have something to work with.

Examples can be drawn from real experiences. 'When measuring comfort, designers of fast trains found that passengers missed the movement of the train - it was too smooth, and somehow, the perfection spoiled the experience,' said Dr Saraiva Martins. 'So why not accentuate the corners, increase the sensation of speed, and so increase the experience?' he asks. This is what marketers call 'added value'. Measuring the Impossible aims to break down the empty space between objectivism and empiricism, by bridging it.

Today, when companies test new products, they use panel testing to gauge how desirable a product is. 'Panel testing has an inherent disadvantage - it is for today and not tomorrow. It measures a median opinion as it is now. Great and innovative products challenge and move the game forward,' says Dr Henson.

As today's Europe has awoken to find that it is being left behind by lower costs from emerging economies and greater competition from mature economies, this new approach could help Europe to cling on to its competitive position. Projects like Measuring the Impossible aim to leap-frog over the competition with innovation.

Dr Henson explains: 'When you see great items, they have that special something, what we would call perceived quality, which over time we may even come to associate across an entire brand. So 'that something' can add a huge premium in terms of value, not fractions of a per cent, just look at the success of [Apple] iPods. What we need to do as an economy is hit the mark more frequently and at the first attempt. To do that we must better understand - and that means measure - what today is the impossible.'

Such an approach fits snugly to the notion of 'lead markets', included in the blueprint for European innovation, the Aho report, chaired by former Finnish Prime Minister, Esko Aho. But even in Finland there is not yet the national support for these novel forms of research.

Neuroscientist Minna Huotilainen, from the University of Helsinki's Department of Psychology, successfully bid for one of the Measuring the Impossible calls, with the project BrainTuning.

This project examines psychology and music, and in particular the evaluation of music using brain research tools. It straddles psychology, musicology and brain research, combining the themes and also examining brain development and emotive responses to music.

'In our case this [the Measuring the Impossible call] is the only way to do it. National funding would not have funded us [...]. This is very important for us, advancing the field,' she says.

'If you think of my field, neuroscience, if you want to study development, you could research with national funding and look at language development and maybe look at music a little, but you would still be within the conventional parameters,' she says. However, Dr Huotilainen wanted to look at interdisciplinary research.

'If you can find people who are interested in two different fields, I think this is where the real advances in science really lie - where you can make giant leaps.' She also believes that interdisciplinary studies are essential to prevent repetition of valuable research time, and to apply studies from one area to another. 'People may have found answers in one field, but researchers in other fields may not know this - researchers do not talk to one another. This way you can use the information and use it in other fields.'

For Andy Henson, the idea will move consumer products along at a rapid pace. 'To make premium products, you have to compete on perceived quality [....]. There are also uses in forensics and identifying fakes,' he says.

Previously, 'this was not considered the sort of thing the Framework Programme would fund,' says Dr Henson. 'To be ambitious, you have to take risks. This is one of the areas where projects match the talk and challenge and innovate. From sciences to innovation - the developments will lend themselves to the innovation agenda,' he says. The research is only just beginning - Dr Huotilainen says that BrainTuning is currently in the data-gathering phase.

Dr Saraiva Martins sees Measuring the Impossible as a way to bridge the classic chasm between objectivism and empiricism. 'There are many things we should be doing - it is our responsibility - to bring together the two worlds back together,' he says. Expect to be surprised.

Selected projects:

- MindBridge - Measuring Consciousness. Aims to bridge the large gap between psychology and neuroscience, between subjective experience and objective observation

- MONAT - Measuring 'naturalness'.

-PERCEPT - Perceptual consciousness - from technical to artistic appreciation, linking behavioural responses to neural pathways.

- SynTex - Measuring feelings and expectations associated with texture.

For further information, consult the NEST PATHFINDER website:

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