Image Credit: Jennifer Fairman

Johns Hopkins has received a $20 million grant from the National Institute on Aging that will spur the development of artificial intelligence, or AI, devices to improve the health of older adults and help them live independently for longer—a relatively untapped use of this technology. The funds, spread over five years, will launch an AI and technology collaboratory with members from the Johns Hopkins University schools of MedicineNursing, the Whiting School of Engineering, and the Carey Business School, as well as stakeholders including older Americans and caregivers, technology developers and innovators, and industry partners.

“Many older adults accumulate health problems and have functional and cognitive declines that impact their ability to stay in their own homes and enjoy meaningful social interactions,” says Jeremy Walston, the Raymond and Anna Lublin Professor of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology at the School of Medicine. “This new enterprise is attempting to disrupt these problems in ways that will lengthen the years that people have to enjoy independent, highly functional lives, free of cognitive impairment.”

Walston is the deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Division of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology and the co-principal investigator of the Johns Hopkins Older Americans Independence Center, which focuses on studying frailty among older adults. He is one of four faculty members from different Johns Hopkins member organizations who will lead the new initiative. The others are Peter Abadir, an associate professor of geriatric medicine and gerontology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he directs the OAIC’s molecular mechanism core; Gregory Hager, the Mandell Bellmore Professor in Computer Science at the Whiting School of Engineering and the founding director of the Malone Center for Engineering in Healthcare; and Rama Chellappa, a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Whiting School and the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the school of medicine.

Chellappa has devoted his career to scholarly and translational research in AI, computer vision and machine learning. He says rapid advances in AI during the past decade—along with an exponential increase in the amount of available biomedical data gathered from personal devices such as fitness watches, sensors in health care settings, and the expanding “omics” sciences such as genomics, proteomics, and metabolomics—have positioned AI as an extremely valuable platform for improving the health of older Americans. This technology uses AI algorithms to search enormous amounts of data for patterns and features that are impossible for humans to discover manually.

“When people think of AI, they often think of intriguing devices like self-driving cars,” Chellappa says. “Helping the elderly population may not sound as exciting as having a car go on its own at 90 miles per hour on the freeway, but it’s very important.”

Abadir adds that the percentage of older adults is expected to increase around the world over the next few decades. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are currently more than 54 million people over age 65 in the U.S., and that number is predicted to nearly double by 2060, increasing the population of older people to one out of every four Americans. Many of the common problems that accompany aging could be eased with AI, Abadir explains.

For example, data from sensors that monitor gait could be used to develop devices that predict and prevent falls, and algorithms monitoring facial expression and speech could spot signs of early dementia to help people receive early intervention or treatment.

The AITC will be structured so that these advances won’t remain academic pursuits but will be ushered along a pathway through eight cores, or workgroups, that will eventually bring devices into the marketplace, explains Phillip Phan, the Alonzo and Virginia Decker Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and the leader of the AITC’s networking and mentoring core.

The center’s eight cores are led by geriatricians—clinicians specialized in care for older adults—AI engineers, psychologists, data scientists, and business professionals. In addition, a critical partnership with business partners outside of Johns Hopkins and a key clinical collaboration with the Iowa Office of Rural Health Veterans Rural Health Resource Centers leadership will be instrumental to the AITC stakeholder, equity, and implementation goals.

Starting from concepts developed in conjunction with stakeholders including older Americans and caregivers, these cores will seek to bring AITC ideas to fruition by adapting existing technologies or developing new ones, perfecting prototypes and testing them in clinical trials, and creating marketable devices with industry collaborators.

Johns Hopkins’ broad expertise in aging, AI, biomedical engineering, and the business of health care is an attractive combination for industry, Phan says, with well-known technology and health care collaborators already joining the AITC.

“The power of this kind of collaboration is that you aren’t proposing solutions in a vacuum,” Phan says. “The solutions are more likely to be implementable because you’re considering how people will use them in the marketplace upfront. The most meaningful impact is if we can move the needle on the proportion of older Americans living in long term chronic care facilities to living healthily at home. That’s the bottom line.”

The genesis of the new collaboration was Whiting School of Engineering co-principal investigator Hager’s participation on a National Academies panel two years ago.

“It was on that panel that I, for the first time, had a chance to fully understand the potential opportunity for AI to enhance the ‘wellness span’ of human life,” Hager says. “At the time, we had many great ideas, but no way to make them actionable. The AITC is our opportunity to take great ideas using AI from anywhere in the country, focus and mature them, and direct them toward an area of immense societal benefit.”