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Older man and woman looking at an AI conversational assistant / Alexa type device.

Martin-Hammond receives NSF CAREER Award to fuel research on intelligent assistants for elders and social wellness

July 7, 2022

SoIC faculty member Aqueasha Martin-Hammond has received a prestigious CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation for her research project on designing AI conversational assistants to support older adults and their social wellness.

Aqueasha Martin-HammondMartin-Hammond (left), Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Human-Computer Interaction at the IU School of Informatics and Computing at IUPUI. She will receive a total of $543,539 over five years for her project, “CAREER: Conversational User Interfaces to Support Older Adults’ Social Wellness” (NSF award number 2144503).

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program offers the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious awards to support early-career faculty who have the potential to be academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. The NSF notes, “Activities pursued by early-career faculty should build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.”

Artificial intelligence and aging

“Much research is needed to understand the potential and limitations of AI to enhance social well-being among the aging population,” says Davide Bolchini, Ph.D., who heads the Department of Human-Centered Computing at the School of Informatics and Computing. “This research is extremely timely.

“We are very excited to see this prestigious and highly competitive NSF award bestowed on Aqueasha, who is leading important research advances in designing the next generation of intelligent assistants for older adults.

“This NSF support gives Aqueasha a solid foundation for career-long scientific and educational contributions at the forefront of Human-Centered AI for our aging society,” says Bolchini, a professor of Human-Centered Computing at SoIC and director of its Human-Computer Interaction Program.

Bridging the gap with technology

Martin-Hammond’s CAREER project addresses the issue of older adults often becoming socially isolated and lonely, which can lead to other health challenges. Reasons can include relocating for retirement, becoming less mobile, and experiencing the loss of family and friends.

“The research is expected to reveal new conversational approaches that can benefit older adults’ social wellness,” she says, “while decreasing the risk of social isolation.”

To help elders remain socially active, Martin-Hammond will explore using AI-enabled interfaces such as voice assistants and chatbots to foster connections and improve social wellness.

“Today’s conversational assistants support the retrieval of information,” she notes, “but can fall short in helping older adults connect with their peers and leveraging the social fabric of these relationships to access meaningful local resources.

“Imagine a future where a tool, such as Amazon Alexa, could proactively remind us to call a relative on their birthday—or to go to a neighborhood event where our friends are going—by learning about our behaviors and preferences.”

Older adults to become advisers

For her CAREER project to support older adults’ social wellness, Martin-Hammond says she intends to engage elders in the design process.

“The goal is to develop interfaces that promote real-world social connections and motivate older adults to engage in social activities with other people,” she says. “Therefore it is important for us to engage older adults, to understand their needs.”

By adapting state-of-the-art conversational design methods, Martin-Hammond wants her work to improve how artificial intelligence serves older people, and how we approach the design of these systems.

“We hope to aid reflective thinking of the impact of artificially intelligent technologies on an increasingly aging society,” she says.

For example, people often discuss privacy concerns when thinking about whether to use AI-enabled technologies.

“Through our research, we plan to also address concerns such as privacy in the design process,” Martin-Hammond says, “and take what we learn to also create tools that designers of these systems can use to support reflective thinking when designing these technologies for the aging population.”

This latest NSF grant enables Martin-Hammond to continue her research involving technology and older adults. In 2021 she received a $498,904 National Science Foundation grant to explore how intelligent assistants, such as Siri and Alexa, can help elders with daily health-care information tasks at home. She serves as principal investigator for the project, “Designing Autonomy Preserving Interactions in Intelligent Assistants for Older Adults.” Bolchini is co-principal investigator.

Disclaimer: Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


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