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UMass Lowell Among Team Awarded $20 Million by NSF

Funding to Go to AI Systems to Support Aging

Prof. Holly Yanco with a Baxter robot
Computer Science Prof. Holly Yanco will lead UMass Lowell research to develop AI systems that help care for senior citizens in a National Science Foundation project that includes many partners across the country.

07/29/2021

Contacts for media: Christine Gillette, 978-758-4664, Christine_Gillette@uml.edu and Nancy Cicco, 978-934-4944, Nancy_Cicco@uml.edu

LOWELL, Mass. – A team of researchers led by Sonia Chernova, associate professor of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech, has won a five-year, $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation to build intelligent systems that support aging.

The grant will support the creation of the NSF AI Institute for Collaborative Assistance and Responsive Interaction for Networked Groups, or AI-CARING. The institute aims to develop new longitudinal, collaborative AI systems that work with elderly adults, including those diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, and their caregivers.

AI-CARING will include faculty from Georgia Tech, Carnegie Mellon University, Oregon State University, the University of Massachusetts Lowell and Oregon Health & Science University and has Amazon and Google as industry sponsors. The core researchers will connect with other higher education institutions, nonprofits, and government entities across the country in order to provide education and workforce opportunities to diverse groups.

“I am excited to be part of the NSF AI-CARING team, as we look to improve people’s interactions with artificial intelligence (AI) systems. At UMass Lowell, we will apply our expertise in trust in human-robot interaction and in the development of evaluation methods and metrics to the creation of AI systems that can provide assistance to aging adults, their families and friends, and other caregivers. Additionally, we will develop educational programs on AI for K-12 students and teachers and work to increase diversity, equity and inclusion in the AI workforce,” said UMass Lowell’s Distinguished University Prof. Holly Yanco, co-principal investigator on AI-CARING and director of the New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation (NERVE) Center at UMass Lowell. 

UMass Lowell’s share of the funding will be $2.4 million.

“This new NSF AI Institute is an example of how UMass Lowell researchers are partnering with other leading universities and major companies to enhance quality of life through better understanding of human interactions with technology. Our NERVE Center, led by Distinguished University Prof. Holly Yanco – with expertise from computer science, electrical and mechanical engineering, physical therapy and many other disciplines – is at the forefront of new standards and evaluation methods for exoskeletons, assistive technology, autonomy, AI and human-machine interfaces,” said Julie Chen, UMass Lowell’s vice chancellor for research and economic development.

Most older adults prefer to remain in their own homes. But safety concerns, medication schedules, and isolation can all make it difficult for them to do so.

Imagine an elderly parent who no longer remembers to turn the stove off after cooking, said Beth Mynatt, co-PI and director of the Institute for People and Technology (IPaT) at Georgia Tech. An intelligent system could support meal preparation activities, such as reminding older adults warm up a prepared meal, detecting when the stove is left on, and sending a reminder to turn it off. Then, if the stove wasn’t turned off, the system could send an alert to a caregiver.

Now, imagine that system extended to support a full calendar of appointments, medication reminders, and schedules for multiple caregivers, among other things.

“Our goal is to create systems that help people take care of people,” Mynatt said. “Care can be a complicated task, requiring coordination and decision-making across family members managing day-to-day demands.”

This kind of personalized AI presents a fascinating series of technical challenges as well, Chernova said. Most AI agents focus on a single choice or action – a sale, for example – and then use data from as many people as possible to understand it. But in this case, the AI is gathering in-depth data on a single person and their care team.

“We need AI systems that can interact with users over weeks or months or even years,” Chernova said. “And in order to help someone, you need to understand their values and their relationships with other people.” 

The goal is not to replace human caretakers, Chernova said, but to lend them a hand.

“AI is not going to become a home nurse,” she said. “Caring for an older relative or friend can be overwhelming. Our AI system seeks to support human caregivers by offloading some of the logistics and reminders, so that people can focus on the more positive aspects of care.”

The award builds upon decades of work at Georgia Tech, both in artificial intelligence, and – through IPaT – understanding the technological needs of older adults. The new systems will be tested with Georgia families through existing programs, including the Emory-Georgia Tech Cognitive Empowerment Program, which currently serves more than 100 people diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment.

“The AI-CARING Institute builds on our existing strengths in AI and in technology for aging. It will create not only novel solutions but a new generation of researchers focused on the interaction between the two,” said Charles Isbell, dean and John P. Imlay, Jr. chair of computing. 

“I am delighted to announce the establishment of new NSF National AI Research Institutes as we look to expand into all 50 states,” said National Science Foundation Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “These Institutes are hubs for academia, industry, and government to accelerate discovery and innovation in AI. Inspiring talent and ideas everywhere in this important area will lead to new capabilities that improve our lives from medicine to entertainment to transportation and cybersecurity and position us in the vanguard of competitiveness and prosperity.”

In partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate, and the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, the NSF is funding 11 centers within its National AI Research Institutions program. 

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