AI and digital health are critical frontiers for the future of tech.
Decisions have consequences, even when those outcomes aren’t anticipated.
The Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering finds itself in a leadership role in the evolving and increasingly intertwined worlds of artificial intelligence and digital health thanks to a combination of decisions and the vision to invest in a critical emerging area. The construction of the Luddy Center for Artificial Intelligence, the $22.8 million, state-of-the-art teaching and research facility, funded as part of the generous $60 million gift from Fred Luddy in Oct. 2019, will help push the school’s dedication to the melding of AI and digital health into tomorrow.
The Luddy Center for AI is the latest step in what has been a long journey, one that began on two separate paths.
“There were two themes that were developing independently,” says Kay Connelly, the associate dean for research at the Luddy School. “Several people were doing health research in bioinformatics – which focuses on computational methods to investigate problems in genomics and biology, and the proactive health informatics group - which focuses on the Internet of Things and the design of health technologies for patients. Simultaneously, we had artificial intelligence researchers pursuing machine learning and deep learning, and they were trying to create systems that had human-like. These two somewhat independent yet overlapping threads have long been a part of our School.”
Researchers such as Connelly, Associate Professor of Informatics and Computing David Crandall, Associate Professor of Informatics Selma Sabanovic, Professor of Informatics and Computing David Wild, and Professor Katie Siek have been actively blending AI and digital health over the past several years. Their efforts have led to a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to plan an Artificial Intelligence Institute for Rural Health, Wellness, and Resilience at IU, with the goal of making the plan a reality.
The Luddy School will also draw on its strengths to involve more researchers in the AI and digital health effort.
“We want to bring as many researchers as possible under this umbrella,” Connelly says. “We have people such as (Associate Professor) Nathan Ensmenger who looks at the ethics of AI. We have people who are looking at security and privacy who are interested in how that comes into play in AI and health. It has really opened an opportunity to our faculty who don’t consider themselves AI researchers. For example, we have one of the best programming languages groups in the country, and they’re looking at how they can develop programming languages that support AI. These are people who don’t traditionally work in AI or health, but the Luddy School is a place where they can help with some serious implementation issues that we face when we think about AI and applying it to real-world domains.”
The Luddy School is expanding its research capability with the addition of Assistant Professor Xuhong Zhang, who earned her Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Irvine. Her research includes medical image computing and imaging informatics, Bayesian nonparametric modeling, mobile health, and digital health, and her arrival adds one more world-class researcher to the Luddy faculty.
Wild came to the Luddy School in the mid-2000s, and he has witnessed how different groups are working together better and smarter to reach their goals.
“There was a lot of emphasis on data standards and interoperability, as well as applying machine learning in very specific, focused ways such as predicting the biological effects of a drug molecule or perhaps predicting which genotypic variants might be more susceptible to a disease,” Wild says. “Since then, we have seen an explosion in the amount of data available, all the way from molecular data through to wearable devices and patient records, and a huge increase in computing capacity and accessibility of scalable techniques for aggregating, understanding and predicting from that data. There are still many barriers to overcome, such as accessibility of data, data quality and reliability, and the ability to properly model the immense complexity of the body. The Luddy School has a unique set of expertise and research which is I believe critical for overcoming these barriers and seeing big gains from AI and digital health.”
A huge factor driving optimism in the growth of AI and digital health is another existing strength of the Luddy School, that of interdisciplinary collaboration.
“Our school is highly integrative, and I think this is key,” Wild says. “Creative thinking at the borders of these disciplines is where the breakthroughs will happen. The Luddy Center for Artificial Intelligence will physically bring people together in new ways with new facilities.”
There also is a willingness and drive from Luddy researchers to take on challenges.
“We are never daunted by wicked problems,” Siek says. “We have terrific faculty, staff, and student researchers who look for ways to collaborate on challenging problems that can improve the lives of Hoosiers and the broader population. Luddy researchers must constantly be innovating and not just within our own computationally oriented computing domains. We have to collaborate with IU researchers to figure out how to ensure we can get accurate, unbiased data, analyze and visualize the data so that all key stakeholders can act on the data to improve our society.”
Fortune helped set the table for the Luddy School by blessing it with top researchers in the separate areas of AI and digital health. The organic evolution of the separate areas has driven past success, but the way the fields have drawn closer has provided an opportunity for the Luddy School to leverage its experience in both areas to be a leader.
“I think, historically, digital health has been focused on very specific problems driven by the way that we have approached medicine and healthcare in the past,” Wild says. “We are now entering a new era where AI, pervasive devices, data science, and computing can drive completely new paradigms of healthcare and medicine that don’t obey the old laws. We will be able to create new thinking around very basic questions such as, “How do we keep you healthy and help you get better quickly when you do get sick?” and “How can we increase the health, wellness, and resiliency as climate change and pandemics make the world more adverse?” I believe that there will be a major paradigm shift in the next few decades in how we understand what health, illness, and wellness, and this will be driven by schools such as ours.”
The Luddy Center for Artificial Intelligence will play a key role in boosting the school’s reputation in this critical field, and it’s another example looking to the future. The Luddy School isn’t just working on what has always been done. It’s focused on the next big thing.
“AI is going to be as common as the internet,” Connelly says. “It’s going to be in every single thing. So, it’s not that this is a separate thing we’re doing. We’re integrating it into other areas. It’s the first kind of big initiative, but it’s certainly not going to be the last. I see this space as allowing us to move with society and move with the technology evolution. We have this dynamic, cross-disciplinary space, and when you couple our committed faculty with visitors who will see the commitment from the school, it will establish the Luddy School as a true leader in this critical area.”