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July 20, 2006

Pitt, CMU join forces to develop quality of life technology

Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University are joining forces to aid the growing number of older adults and people with disabilities in the U.S. population.

The two neighboring universities have been awarded a five-year, $15 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to establish an engineering research center that will develop technologies to help older adults and people with disabilities live independently and productively.

Researchers at the new Quality of Life Technology Engineering Research Center will create a scientific and engineering knowledge base enabling the development of intelligent systems that co-exist and work with people, particularly those with impairments, according to press materials distributed at this week’s NSF grant announcement.

Research at the center will build upon recent advances in intelligent system technologies, including machine perception, robotics, learning, communication and miniaturization, which until now have been used primarily in industrial, military or entertainment settings.

These intelligent systems could include devices that a person carries or wears, a mobile system that a person rides or that accompanies a person, or an environment equipped with instruments to aid people. Technology could be developed that will enable people to continue to drive safely as they age.

Researchers hope such devices and systems will be able to monitor the health and activity levels of people living alone, prompt failing memories or control household appliances.

The new center also will look to improve existing assistive technologies, such as wheelchairs, by adding capabilities that provide navigational and cognitive assistance, and will develop technologies for the workplace that increase the employability of people with disabilities.

The center will be directed jointly by Rory Cooper, Distinguished Professor and FISA/PVA Chair of Rehabilitation Science and Technology at Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, and Takeo Kanade, the U.A. and Helen Whitaker University Professor of Computer Science and Robotics at Carnegie Mellon.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that by 2030 more than 20 percent of a projected population in excess of 300 million people will be 65 or older. And while approximately 60 million people in the United States have some kind of disability today, that number is expected to rise to 75 million by 2030.

Kanade, an expert in robotics and computer vision, said, “If the technology we develop at the [new center] can delay the need to send people from their homes to assisted-living or nursing facilities by even one month, we can save our nation $1.2 billion annually. We need to apply the same ingenuity that we’ve used for military, space and manufacturing applications to improve the human condition.”

Cooper, an expert on wheelchair design as well as an accomplished wheelchair athlete, explained that the research agenda of the new engineering research center would be guided by both personal and societal needs.

“We want to make sure we’re developing technologies that are accessible, effective and user-friendly,” he stated. “We will involve focus groups and prospective users in the development process and give them the opportunity to provide feedback on prospective products. Issues of privacy, policy, aesthetics and user acceptance all will be considered, and we will delve into questions about market readiness as well as health plan reimbursement issues.”

According to Carnegie Mellon President Jared Cohon, Pittsburgh is the perfect laboratory for the center’s work because of its large population of older adults and its two major research universities.

“Carnegie Mellon’s great strength in information technology and growing strength in life sciences, coupled with Pitt’s renowned expertise in medicine and bioengineering, make this the ideal place to develop technology that enhances independence and improves the lives of the aging and those with disabilities,” Cohon stated.

“We also expect this work to be a catalyst for start-up companies that will bring jobs to the region and further strengthen Pittsburgh’s reputation as a center for development and commercialization of health-related technology,” he added.

At a July 17 press conference, Cooper said that the expectation of the NSF grant is to demonstrate some breakthroughs within three years and additional breakthroughs by the six-year mark, assuming the NSF funding is renewed. “But one of the most important products that the center will produce is process development,” including inviting workers from industry into the laboratory and getting input from students and end-users in the planning, design and development of new intelligent systems, Cooper said.

“‘Breakthrough’ is a loaded word,” Kanade added. “We will build on work that already has gone on steadily both at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon. The vision is to have intelligent systems to augment people, and to enable people to live independently and in a self-determined way. I see that as a step-by-step process. This would benefit care givers, including informal care givers in the home, and will increase participation in the society and in the economy” by keeping people employable as they age or if they have a disability, he said.

Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg said the new center combines complementary strengths of the two universities and would contribute to the local and regional economy as well as increase the region’s reputation as a world-class leader in health care.

Nordenberg noted that Pitt and Carnegie Mellon have operated jointly the NSF-sponsored Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center since 1986 and that in 2004 the two universities received a $25 million NSF grant to create the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center.

“The creation of a scientific and engineering knowledge base that will result in new technologies — enabling not only older adults but also people with disabilities to prolong, preserve and improve their quality of life — is yet another benefit of the combined strengths of two powerhouse research universities,” Nordenberg said.

While Pitt’s Cooper and CMU’s Kanade will direct the new center, Richard Schulz, associate director of the University’s Institute on Aging, and Howard Wactlar, vice provost for research computing at Carnegie Mellon, will oversee the center’s research agenda. Jim Osborn, director of Carnegie Mellon’s Medical Robotics Technology Center, will serve as the center’s executive director.

In the short term, the administrative, research and clinical operations of the center will be housed in existing facilities at Pitt, Carnegie Mellon and UPMC. For the longer term, the goal is to consolidate the interdisciplinary center further, ideally in its own building in Oakland, within 10 years, Cooper said.

—Peter Hart

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