In April, I attended Technology, Mind & Society (TMS)—an interdisciplinary conference organized by the American Psychological Association. The three-day event saw scientists, industry, and policymakers come together to learn about emerging technologies, including computer-human interaction, artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), and the Internet of Things.
Emerging technologies will help us meet the increasing demands for health care, mental health services (including PTSD), and elderly care in a way that is both personalized and delivered on a mass scale. Multiple presentations at TMS showed us how mHealth (mobile health) technologies are developed with a sophisticated understanding of the consumer-patient. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) considered the prospect of patient communication via a VR-based medical consultation. Meanwhile, an interdisciplinary team at the University of Rochester presented a system to deliver behavioral health care services via a VR smartphone application. Researchers from Cornell Tech showed how smartphones don’t just allow us to implement a physical or mental health intervention, their sensors can provide rich data about behavior and usage contexts, allowing researchers and healthcare providers to tailor, time, and evaluate interventions according to patient needs.
All of this means that the line between health campaigns, treatments, and health interventions will be blurred in the future. Health care will be developed as a seamless experience, accessible to many people and individualized to their particular needs. What does that mean for the behavior change researcher working in the digital health space? It means we will need to consider behavior change models together with principles of user-centered design.
Wearable technologies will increasingly be able to measure every aspect the human experience. Researchers from New Mexico State University are working on developing wearables for emergency responders that can integrate both physiological information and inputs from the environment. Neuroflow, a conference sponsor, showed us a platform that integrates information from wearable sensors into mental health treatment—their software allows providers to track patient progress using physiological markers of stress and emotion. This technology is changing the healthcare interface and our understanding of traditional medical devices. Recently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) indicated its commitment to keeping pace with the speed of technology and encouraging innovation by reviewing its approach to regulating these devices.
The robots are coming! And it’s a good thing. Avatars, robots, and virtual/augmented reality are transforming the ways we learn, work, and develop. Keynote speakers Cynthia Brezael and Justine Cassel outlined the painstaking research involved in creating robots that can interact naturally with humans. As Justine Cassel points out, her goal is to make robots that make us act more human. Eric Horvitz (Microsoft Research) highlighted how the purpose of robots and AI is not to replace humans, but to complement them. Robots will be like attentive assistants that can anticipate what we need, perceive our reactions, and know our blind spots, all with the goal of supporting our (very human) work.
The biggest fuel in the development of these technologies is the massive amounts of data we can now collect and analyze. The University of Pennsylvania’s research team showed us how they have been able to use publicly available Twitter data to predict public health and well-being metrics. Sandy Pentland’s (MIT) keynote finished up the three-day event by showing us how the masses of human behavior data that we now collect actually reveal important social structures and dynamics, all of which can help policymakers understand social change and predict social and health problems.
What’s the big take-away? The promise of humanistic technology: advancements that are designed and built with humans in mind to support health, learning, and development for people and societies.
Here at FMG, we actively pursue innovative data science and technologies to support this goal. FMG’s Communication Research and Software Development team is working with the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) on a pilot study sponsored by the Office of Minority Health (OMH). We are using natural language processing and machine-based learning to analyze transcripts of advisory committee public hearings as well as social media data. By gaining a deeper understanding of crucial medications and health information needed by minority populations, we are working toward the goal of reducing the healthcare disparities often faced by diverse populations. We are also using Twitter sentiment data for other public health measures, such as predicting diabetes prevalence rates and opioid use.
Our Learning Technologies and Personnel Development division is constantly working to find creative ways to leverage technology to support human learning and optimize performance for individuals, teams, and organizations. We are currently designing an interactive, gamified training program for the General Services Administration’s (GSA) Center for Acqusition Professional Excellence. An initial study will examine how this virtual learning environment can improve learning outcomes and knowledge acquisiton.
The insights I gained at Technology, Mind & Society affirmed our efforts at FMG to embrace the future of data science and technology will continue to gain value in creating positive social impact.