How AI is im­prov­ing the lives of chil­dren with chal­lenges

Ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence is help­ing chil­dren with autism, deaf chil­dren, and new­borns who get seizures

The Irish Times - Business - - BUSINESS INNOVATION - Ciara O’Brien

For many peo­ple liv­ing with autism, so­cial in­ter­ac­tions can be like be­ing in a coun­try where you don’t speak the lan­guage. What neu­rotyp­i­cal peo­ple take for granted – in­ter­pret­ing cues from body lan­guage, tones and fa­cial ex­pres­sions, es­tab­lish­ing a rap­port with eye con­tact – can be a chal­lenge for peo­ple on the autism spec­trum. It’s a var­ied thing, of course, but for those who do ex­pe­ri­ence these chal­lenges, it can be iso­lat­ing.

Dr Ned Sahin may have a so­lu­tion that could help with at least some of these is­sues, and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence plays a large role.

“You might have a tremen­dous amount of power in your brain, but not be able to com­mu­ni­cate with oth­ers. Imag­ine if you didn’t speak the lan­guage, ev­ery­one was yelling at you, fac­ing back­wards, you didn’t know who to lis­ten to, and ev­ery­thing about you felt just a lit­tle bit off,” he said.

“Just imag­ine if I could give you an AI that would out­source or near source some of the com­plex chal­lenges such as de­ter­min­ing when some­one is an­gry or bored, or help look to­wards some­one, pay at­ten­tion when they are speak­ing and get the right in­for­ma­tion.”

It’s not a the­o­ret­i­cal de­vice; Dr Sahin has built one us­ing Google Glass. The wear­able de­vice has been through clin­i­cal tri­als and is now on sale in schools. It uses fa­cial de­tec­tion and anal­y­sis to de­tect emo­tions and turns into a video game: the wearer gets points for mak­ing eye con­tact with a teacher, or for guess­ing cor­rectly if some­one is happy or an­gry.

“We’re us­ing fa­cial de­tec­tion and anal­y­sis to de­code fa­cial emo­tions and turn that into a video game. We have about 10 dif­fer­ent apps at dif­fer­ent stages, com­mer­cialised and un­der devel­op­ment that are a wear­able life coach on your shoul­der, on your head, in­ter­posed be­tween you and the rest of re­al­ity, but not block­ing you from ac­tu­ally be­ing part of re­al­ity,” he said. “AI is do­ing the heavy lift­ing. When it feels like a video game, it taps into nat­u­ral mo­ti­va­tional struc­tures that chil­dren have and teaches them the skills that will get them through the big­gest two gate­ways in life, which is a ro­man­tic part­ner­ship and a job.”

Ama­zon Web Ser­vices

While Google pro­vides the hard­ware, the com­put­ing be­hind the scenes comes through Ama­zon Web Ser­vices (AWS). The global gi­ant has been dou­bling down on ma­chine learn­ing and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, open­ing up pow­er­ful tools to smaller com­pa­nies and or­gan­i­sa­tions at a more com­pet­i­tive cost than in the past. At its an­nual Re:In­vent con­fer­ence, the com­pany an­nounced ev­ery­thing from a cus­tom de­signed chip to tech­nol­ogy that can speed up the train­ing of AI mod­els. The end re­sult? Ama­zon is hop­ing that it will democra­tise the tech­nol­ogy, ac­cel­er­at­ing its roll­out through­out every in­dus­try as it be­comes eas­ier and cheaper for com­pa­nies and or­gan­i­sa­tions to use the tech­nol­ogy in their prod­ucts.

In the mean­time, the move­ment for AI for good con­tin­ues. Phone maker Huawei has also dipped its toe into the wa­ter with a new app that signs a select num­ber of story books for deaf chil­dren, help­ing to teach them to read. An­nounced at the start of De­cem­ber, the app will trans­late a book into sign lan­guage through the the Mate 20 Pro’s cam­era, us­ing an on­screen avatar to sign the story as the printed words are high­lighted.

“We cre­ated Sto­rySign to help make it pos­si­ble for fam­i­lies with deaf chil­dren to en­joy an en­riched story time,” said An­drew Gar­rihy, chief mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer, Huawei west­ern Europe. “We hope that by rais­ing aware­ness of deaf lit­er­acy is­sues, peo­ple will be en­cour­aged to do­nate to or sup­port one of the fan­tas­tic char­ity part­ners we are work­ing with across Europe.”

Closer to home, Cork’s IN­FANT Re­search Cen­tre has been us­ing AI to help im­prove out­comes for new­born ba­bies. Re­searchers in the cen­tre de­vel­oped an al­go­rithm that helps de­tect seizures in new­borns, in­ter­pret­ing EEG read­ings at the same level as a hu­man ex­pert.

The soft­ware can be in­te­grated into ex­ist­ing bed­side mon­i­tors, lim­it­ing the amount of equip­ment nec­es­sary around a child’s bed­side and pro­vid­ing doc­tors with valu­able clin­i­cal data.

Just imag­ine if I could give you an AI that would out­source or near source some of the com­plex chal­lenges such as de­ter­min­ing when some­one is an­gry or bored, or help look to­wards some­one, pay at­ten­tion when they are speak­ing and get the right in­for­ma­tion

It has been a ma­jor win for the treat­ment of new­borns, and looks set to be rolled out glob­ally once the clin­i­cal tri­als have been pub­lished. The project won an AI award last month, one of sev­eral Ir­ish ac­tiv­i­ties in ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence that were hon­oured.

How­ever, while AI has enor­mous po­ten­tial for good, there are is­sues ahead and there needs to be some care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion about its im­pact.

Vasi Philomin, di­rec­tor of soft­ware en­gi­neer­ing with AWS, said know­ing the lim­i­ta­tions of the ser­vices is im­por­tant for ef­fec­tive use.

“You’ve got to un­der­stand what the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the ser­vice ac­tu­ally is and then try to use it ap­pro­pri­ately in those cases,” he said.

In the case of AWS’s ser­vices that use fa­cial recog­ni­tion, for ex­am­ple, the re­sults are given a con­fi­dence score that in­di­cates the prob­a­bil­ity.

The higher the score, the higher the prob­a­bil­ity.

Hu­man in the loop

“In the real world when you see how these things are used,” he ex­plained. “These ser­vices are used as sort of a fil­ter to han­dle the mas­sive amounts of data out there and nar­row the field down for a hu­man to take a look and make a de­ci­sion in the end. We shouldn’t for­get there’s a hu­man in the loop, es­pe­cially for things that are se­ri­ous.”

AWS’s ap­proach is to keep the mod­els for AI and ma­chine learn­ing in the cloud, some­thing Philomin said would im­prove them over time and per­haps even work out some of the bi­ases that could creep in to data.

“It’s im­por­tant to have good-qual­ity di­verse data for train­ing and that’s some­thing we strive to do with our ser­vices,” he said.

“We con­tin­u­ously im­prove the ser­vices, and cus­tomers who are us­ing them see the im­prove­ments without hav­ing to do any­thing on their side.”

But re­quir­ing busi­nesses and the tech in­dus­try to po­lice their own ac­tions may be a step too far in trust for some. The tech in­dus­try is lit­tered with cases where the lim­i­ta­tions of ser­vices were not taken into ac­count, and there is the fear that so­ci­ety will bear the brunt of this.

‘We’re us­ing fa­cial de­tec­tion and anal­y­sis to de­code fa­cial emo­tions and turn that into a video game.’

Ac­cord­ing to Mi­crosoft Ire­land man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Cathri­ona Hal­la­han, AI can be a force for good – but gov­ern­ments need to take a hand in steer­ing its course. “It should be a part­ner­ship be­tween man and ma­chine and not one or the other. Hu­mans need to stay in con­trol of who gets to de­fine how that tech­nol­ogy should be used,” she said. “It should be a coali­tion with in­dus­try, be­tween pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tors and govern­ment to come to­gether and say ‘how should we reg­u­late this and who should have con­trol?’ It shouldn’t be left in the hands of in­dus­try to do that alone.”

Dr Sahin has a clear view of the im­pend­ing im­pact of AI. “Every use­ful tech­nol­ogy will be used for evil and for good. It’s des­per­ately im­por­tant for those of us who are do­ing good, unas­sail­ably, to push for­ward. That doesn’t mean ig­nore the con­cerns around ethics; it means take them as se­ri­ously as pos­si­ble,” he said. “Con­sider it do good, and know what that means. If we worry about the sky fall­ing in, about the data we give off now be­ing used against us in the fu­ture, we won’t make progress for­wards.”

Ac­tual Elec­troen­cephalog­ra­phy (EEG) record­ing net be­ing used on a baby. EEG is the record­ing of the brain’s spon­ta­neous elec­tri­cal ac­tiv­ity over a short pe­riod of time

In­dus­try en­gage­ment with re­search has grown dra­mat­i­cally since the es­tab­lish­ment of Sci­ence Foun­da­tion Ire­land (SFI) in 2003. “We’ve come a long way in quite a short pe­riod of time,” says the foun­da­tion’s di­rec­tor of sci­ence and econ­omy Dr Siob­han Roche.

“There are now over 1,500 col­lab­o­ra­tions be­tween re­search and in­dus­try sup­ported by SFI. The 17 SFI re­searchers have been in­volved in more than 700 col­lab­o­ra­tions to date. That’s a stag­ger­ing num­ber for a small coun­try like Ire­land, es­pe­cially when you con­sider that the long­est es­tab­lished cen­tre we have is just five years old.”

She ex­plains that foun­da­tion’s re­mit is to fund ba­sic and ap­plied re­search to sup­port the econ­omy, so­ci­ety and en­ter­prise devel­op­ment.

“It is all about fund­ing ex­cel­lent re­search,” she says. “That’s the core of what we do.

“It’s about build­ing a knowl­edge-based econ­omy in Ire­land. When we started out build­ing up the sci­ence base it was at quite a low level. A sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ment went into that. We have helped build up the qual­ity of sci­ence.”

Ex­cel­lent sci­ence

In­deed, Ire­land is now ranked 11th in­ter­na­tion­ally for the qual­ity of its sci­en­tific re­search, an im­prove­ment of more than 20 places since 2005. “We are ex­celling in in­ter­na­tional terms,” says Roche. “That’s where in­dus­try col­lab­o­ra­tion pro­grammes came in. Ex­cel­lent sci­ence will at­tract com­pa­nies who want to work with the best in the world.”

Sci­ence Foun­da­tion Ire­land of­fers a num­ber of mech­a­nisms which help in­dus­try and academia build com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage by en­hanc­ing their re­search and devel­op­ment ca­pa­bil­i­ties, en­abling them to en­gage in projects of scale, and al­low­ing them to ex­plore novel op­por­tu­ni­ties and pri­or­i­ties.

The in­dus­try fel­low­ship pro­gramme funds place­ments of aca­demic re­searchers in in­dus­try for pe­ri­ods of be­tween 12 and 14 months. “These have proven to be a great suc­cess, with over 130 in­dus­try part­ner­ships to date,” says Roche.

“Col­lab­o­ra­tions usu­ally start out small and grow. The In­dus­try Fel­low­ship pro­gramme can be good for that. If the col­lab­o­ra­tion is suc­cess­ful, they can move on to a larger-scale in­vest­ment.”

Those larger in­vest­ments can in­clude col­lab­o­ra­tive projects with one of the foun­da­tion’s 17 re­search cen­tres. The cen­tres are fo­cused on ar­eas of strate­gic im­por­tance.

Five new cen­tres were of­fi­cially opened this year as part of an in­vest­ment of more than €98.8 mil­lion by the foun­da­tion over the next six years. That in­vest­ment is be­ing matched by in­dus­try and EU Hori­zon 2020 fund­ing.

The cen­tres’ per­for­mance over the past five years has

It has pro­vided ad­di­tional fund­ing of more than €40 mil­lion for 17 ma­jor projects.

Among these is En­able Spoke, which will ex­am­ine how the in­ter­net of things can be used to im­prove the qual­ity of life for or­di­nary ci­ti­zens liv­ing in ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments.

En­able’s aca­demic re­searchers will work in part­ner­ship with more than 25 com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing large multi­na­tion­als such as In­tel and Huawei, and SMEs such as Cork-based Ac­cu­flow. It will ad­dress a wide range of top­ics in­clud­ing wa­ter man­age­ment, air pol­lu­tion, trans­port con­ges­tion, data pri­vacy and cy­ber­se­cu­rity.

Blockchain and fintech

The Adapt cen­tre is lead­ing a €5 mil­lion re­search pro­gramme, FinTech Fu­sion, which will ad­vance in­no­va­tions in blockchain and fintech re­search and pro­mote the cre­ation of a fintech ecosys­tem in Ire­land.

Mi­crobe Mom, mean­while, is a joint re­search in­vest­ment of €3.4 mil­lion by SFI and lead­ing Ir­ish com­pany Ali­men­tary Health Group, led by the foun­da­tion’s re­search cen­tre APC Mi­cro­biome Ire­land.

The col­lab­o­ra­tion will in­ves­ti­gate the most likely meth­ods of trans­fer of bi­fi­dobac­te­ria strains from mother to baby, the im­pact of the mother’s diet and health on her gut bac­te­ria and what bac­te­ria she trans­fers to her baby at birth, and the im­pact of spe­cific pro­bi­otic sup­ple­ments on the­mother’s’ health.

Look­ing to the fu­ture, Roche says the am­bi­tion is to con­tinue to grow the num­ber and scale of col­lab­o­ra­tions be­tween re­search and in­dus­try. “We also want to de­velop the en­trepreneurs of the fu­ture and see more suc­cess­ful spin-outs from the re­search cen­tres. And we want to make sure that we con­tinue to pro­duce the hu­man cap­i­tal that will serve the needs of so­ci­ety.”

Dr Siob­han Roche: ‘It is all about fund­ing ex­cel­lent re­search’

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