Concordia professor lands unique co-chair in artificial intelligence and health

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The next generation of impactful health research at Concordia will soon get a boost thanks to an innovative new research grant from the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Santé (FRQS).

Simon Bacon is professor of health, kinesiology and applied physiology with the Faculty of Arts and Science. He and co-chair Éric Granger, engineering professor at École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS), have been awarded one of two double research chairs in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) in health, valued at $1.5 million over three years.

According to the FRQS, the co-supervision of students and postdoctoral fellows will help develop the next generation of transversal expertise in life sciences and AI.

The pair will combine their distinct expertise to use AI techniques for automatic expression recognition to identify and measure ambivalence in health.

Bacon is also the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Strategy for Patient-Oriented Research Mentorship Chair in Innovative, Patient-Oriented, Behavioural Clinical Trials and co-director of the Montreal Behavioural Medicine Centre.

“These chairs are an amazing recognition for the work that Éric and I have been doing at the crossroads of health and AI. It will allow us to have a bigger impact in helping the public,” he says.

“We are excited that this will also allow us to recruit and train some excellent students and postdoctoral fellows across these two areas. This is really going to be a team effort.”

I want to exercise, but I don’t have time

Health behaviours are the biggest risk factor for chronic diseases such as heart and respiratory illnesses and cancer, which are causing increasingly negative impacts globally. Things like improving diet or exercise can lead to healthier outcomes, but ambivalence to change is a major challenge. That ambivalence is often incredibly subtle and expressed in non-verbal ways such as a shrug, making it difficult to capture.

Bacon studies the impact of health behaviours and lifestyle on chronic diseases. Using new advances in AI, he hopes the program will lead to an application that will be more accessible and adaptable to individuals. The overall aim is to improve health outcomes and reduce the burden caused by chronic diseases.

“The fact that most digital devices have cameras and microphones provides us with a great opportunity to be able to measure ambivalence within an eHealth application,” he says.

“The idea is to try to understand the person in front of the screen. So instead of giving them a standard, prescribed ‘do this, do that,’ it adapts to how they’re feeling at the time, the tone of their voice and other cues that may otherwise be missed.”

One of the pair’s goals is to develop solutions that can be used to measure ambivalence in areas beyond health care, to anywhere where the goal is to change people’s behaviour.

Bacon and Granger will train graduate students and postdocs to assist with the research and will work closely with patients and health-care professionals as well as academic and industry partners. The partnerships also extend to the engineering students from ÉTS and behavioural science students from Concordia. They will directly collaborate on the work, which includes innovative training components.

With the Concordia Board of Governors’ recent approval of a new School of Health, Paula Wood-Adams, interim vice-president of research and graduate studies, says this forward-thinking collaboration is an example of the diverse health research that the university is known for.

“By merging the increasingly overlapping fields of AI and health in this way, not only are Simon and Eric diving head-first into two Concordia priorities, they’re also leveraging their differing expertise to find tangible solutions to real challenges.”

Learn more about the Double Research Chair in Artificial Intelligence and Digital Health for Health Behaviour Change.



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