2 months ago

ALS diagnosis drives AI engineer to build better eye-activation software

We see it in the movies all the time: the computer whiz furiously typing at his keyboard to bypass the security system or open the un-openable door for the hero. For real computer whizzes, such as Dustin Fast, computer programming is not that dramatic, but Fast can do things on a computer keyboard that are beyond the skills of most people.

Rather, he used to be able to do so.

Fast, an Army veteran who spent nearly a year in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division, works for Boeing in Huntsville as an artificial intelligence software engineer. He writes code all day long, and he is good at it. He uses a lot of complex key strokes and shortcuts in his coding, many he designed himself. Until he began to notice that his right hand was not working quite right.

“My right hand was getting stiffer, and it ached,” Fast said. “I thought it had to do with sitting at a computer all day. I thought it was carpal tunnel syndrome.”

He lost the ability to grip things with that hand and had muscle tremors up his right arm. A physical therapist recommended he see a neurologist. In March he saw Dr. Peter King, a professor in the Department of Neurology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and an expert in neuromuscular disease. King told Fast his condition was not carpal tunnel syndrome, but something much worse. Fast had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, leading to the loss of muscle movement. With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, people eventually lose the ability to speak, eat, move and breathe.

For Fast, 38, loss of the ability to move his hands and arms would mean the loss of his career. The loss of his passion.

“Work is my happy place,” he said. “I’m surrounded by really smart people doing really amazing, really important work. Even with a diagnosis of ALS, I knew I wanted to keep working.”

So Fast looked into eye-activation software for computers. This software allows people with loss of mobility in their hands and arms to use a computer through eye-tracking technology. Users move a mouse and click based on where and how they look at the screen. The technology exists and is available. But for Fast, it has limitations.

“What is available on the market now is sufficient for someone who wants to send an email, surf the internet, do online shopping or watch a movie on their iPad,” he said. “It is not sophisticated enough for a programmer to write code, which is what I need.”

“Dustin told me that he had ideas on using artificial intelligence to improve eye-activation software,” King said. “He needed a structure to implement his ideas, mentors to help guide him and access to experts in fields outside computer programming. Fortunately, an option at UAB had just been put in place.”

UAB has created a Ph.D. program in neuroengineering, a collaboration between the School of Medicine and the School of Engineering. It is a first-of-its-kind program in Alabama and one of the only freestanding neuroengineering doctoral programs in the country.

By combining faculty expertise in neurobiology, neuroscience and engineering, the program will train a new generation of neuroengineers to advance understanding of neurodegenerative disorders and other brain diseases and develop novel therapeutics, neuroprosthetics and tools to restore lost brain function and improve patient outcomes.

King reached out to the co-directors of the program, Lynn Dobrunz, Ph.D., in neurobiology and Gregg Janowski, Ph.D., in engineering, along with Lori McMahon, Ph.D., the dean of the UAB Graduate School.

“Dustin Fast and his desire to create a better eye-activation software system fit perfectly with our program,” Dobrunz said. “We can link him to the experts he needs and give him the tools to accomplish his goal.”

Fast, who describes himself as a lifelong learner, will be the third enrollee in the new doctoral program and is a recipient of a Blazer Fellowship from the graduate school, awarded to top students to provide financial support.

“Typically, students take a variety of classes during their first year in a doctoral program while determining the project that will become the centerpiece of their educational experience,” Janowski said. “Dustin’s eye-activation project is already underway, and we will tailor the program to provide the base set of courses he will need while he continues work on that software.”

Fast says that current eye-activation software requires a user to look at an area on the screen for a specific time in order to activate a click. Some systems use autocorrect to finish a sentence that has been started when writing text.

“I don’t use a keyboard the way most other people do,” Fast said. “I need a tool that is intuitive and has the same throughput on a keyboard as my fingers did. There will be challenges, but I see the path to the solution. I have some possibilities in mind, and I believe I can solve the challenges.”

Fast says he will put his background in artificial intelligence and machine learning to use as key elements for his project.

“You could describe the brain as an extremely powerful computer,” he said. “It works by encoding information, very much the way machine learning works.”

Fast is scheduled to begin the doctoral program in January. Dobrunz and Jankowski are recruiting students for the fall 2021 semester. The program hopes to enroll five or six students each year.

“Dustin’s project is the kind of endeavor that could ultimately benefit many people, and we are committed to getting him the resources he needs,” Dobrunz said.

“Clearly there are potential benefits of his project for others with disabilities,” King said. “Improvement in eye-tracking software could have tremendous benefit for many people with neurodegenerative disease or loss of mobility from stroke, spinal injury or traumatic brain injury.”

“I am excited to begin the Ph.D. program,” Fast said. “This started as a way for me to continue working. Now it’s becoming a way for me to help make the world a better place.”

This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s UAB News website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)
30 mins ago

USDA, Alabama sign historic agreement to improve forests on public, private lands

U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary James Hubbard and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed a shared stewardship agreement Jan. 12 to ensure the long-term sustainability of public and private lands in the state.

The agreement signed in an online ceremony is among USDA’s Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and the Alabama Forestry Commission.

Shared Stewardship agreements establish a framework for federal and state agencies to collaborate better, focus on accomplishing mutual goals, further common interests and effectively respond to the increasing ecological challenges and natural resource concerns.

“Shared stewardship provides an incredible opportunity to work with the state of Alabama to set stewardship priorities together,” Hubbard said. “We will combine our mutual skills and assets to achieve cross-boundary outcomes desired by all.”

200

This agreement centers on USDA’s commitment to work with states and other partners to use the best available science to identify high-priority forests that need treatment.

“From our rolling mountains to our sparkling coast, the world can understand why they call it ‘Alabama the Beautiful,’” Ivey said. “I am pleased that we can build on the conservation efforts already happening through these strong federal and state partnerships. I look forward to our state continually working for the good of the people as well as our natural resources and to preserve our beautiful state for generations to come.”

Alabama becomes the seventh state in the South and 23rd in the nation to sign such an agreement to strengthen partnerships to increase the scope and scale of critical forest treatments that support communities and improve forest conditions.

“We look forward to continuing to work together with our partner agencies under this shared stewardship agreement,” said ADCNR Commissioner Chris Blankenship. “This agreement memorializes a lot of the good work we have already been doing together to manage the resources and enhance our beautiful state, and it adds new areas where we can grow our partnerships.”

The agreement can be found at https://www.fs.usda.gov/managing-land/shared-stewardship.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

59 mins ago

VIDEO: Trump’s second impeachment moves forward, Mo Brooks faces targeting in D.C., Alabama’s vaccine rollout is too slow and more on Alabama Politics This Week …

Radio talk show host Dale Jackson and Alabama Democratic Party Executive Committee member Lisa Handback take you through Alabama’s biggest political stories, including:

— President Donald Trump has now been impeached again, but will Democrats actually follow through in the Senate?

— Is U.S. Representative Mo Brooks (R-Huntsville) really in danger of censure, expulsion and/or prosecution in Washington, D.C.?

— Where is Alabama’s vaccine rollout in comparison to other states?

87

Jackson and Handback are joined by State Senator Sam Givhan (R-Huntsville) to discuss the U.S. Capitol riots and their fallout, the next legislative session and whether it will be shortened or not.

Jackson closes the show with a “Parting Shot” at those who believe threats of violence actually help their cause in spite of all the evidence that shows otherwise.

Dale Jackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a talk show from 7-11 AM weekdays on WVNN.

2 hours ago

An open letter to President Trump from a former supporter

Dear President Trump,

I voted for and supported you, as did 74 million Americans throughout the land, and now we are all absolutely and completely betrayed. The Democrats have the presidency and Congress because of you. I am a Christian and wholeheartedly believe in forgiveness – but my forgiveness of you will be difficult. Here’s why.

For about three years your accomplishments were incredible – more than any president in my lifetime. You brought Kim Jong-un to the table and accomplished more in one year with North Korea than Barack Obama or Bill Clinton did in 16. Clinton’s sunshine policies and Obama’s Wilsonian overtures did nothing to advance anything with that Asian nation. But you had Kim talking, at least for a while.

869

You managed to author new trade deals with Canada, Mexico, China and the European Union. You brought NATO to heal by demanding other member nations pay their fair shares. The border with Mexico was strengthened and we were on a concrete plan to better regulate and control illegal immigration.

The economy was perhaps your greatest accomplishment. Usually, the president has little power to deeply affect economic cycles but you lowered taxes and eliminated draconian regulations, essentially removing the tourniquet off of the economy’s blood flow. It absolutely erupted. In fact, I would argue that the economy – running like a greased locomotive going downhill by early 2019 – was better able to shoulder the initial economic shut down due to COVID.  Had Hillary been in the White House, I have no doubt that her weak economy would have tanked with a COVID shuttering. 

But once COVID hit, you implemented that shutdown and you seemed – at least initially – on top of the crisis. Always remember that politics is perception. And, fair or not, the media helps shape perception. Once the summer of 2020 came, you stopped acting like an active leader. You never directly addressed the people, as Reagan or the Bushes would have done. You never inspired confidence in our ability to defeat the virus. Instead, you endlessly moaned about the media and tried to shape perception via Twitter, which was largely unsuccessful.

I have no doubt that the media single-handedly destroyed your presidency with all the misinformation it monolithically propagated. From Charlottesville, VA, to COVID, you never could use the media for your own purposes. Instead, you antagonized it by fighting with Jim Accosta, Chris Cuomo, and other talking heads with whom you had no business arguing, like a child on a recess playground. 

George W. Bush understood that you will never gain the full support of the media and so when it was critical, he ignored it. He placed the media beneath himself and his office, which is absolutely proper.

Your ego would not allow you to be gentlemanly, empathetic or kind. I think this is one reason why the media hated you so much. And instead of leading the people through the COVID crisis, you were viewed by most Americans as petty. If you would have just been nice, pleasant and active for the media, you’d be president today.

Also significant, you never could give others credit when things went well or take the blame when they did not. Reagan was always the first to admit when he was wrong and when he was right, he credited others instead of himself. George H. W. Bush and his son did the same. Obama and Clinton were mixed with this – I saw them give and take credit. But you? You always took credit for everything, without exception. And what’s worse, when things went haywire, you blamed everyone else. What you did to Jeff Sessions was completely wrong. And you ended up doing the same thing to James Mattis, Rex Tillerson, William Barr and many others. During your four years you had four chiefs of staff, five Deputy Chiefs of Staff, four national security advisers and three secretaries of defense. The rate of turnover in your administration was higher than any other president.

Lastly, you manufactured what now seem to have been completely untrue stories about election fraud. You did this in complete dismissal of the truth and most damning, you willfully lied about it for over eight weeks while you should have been focused like a laser on Georgia.

When Republicans tried to legally and constitutionally stand against the electoral votes in certain swing states on January 6 (a largely symbolic gesture), you encouraged your supporters to march on the capitol, which they did. And when they overran the capitol police, ultimately causing the deaths of six Americans and the vandalism of our capitol building, you sat and watched, like Nero playing his fiddle, for hours and hours.

You never made it clear that this was illegal, violent, murderous and destructive. You, it seems to me, tacitly approved while the capitol was ransacked. This is pathetic. You sir do not deserve to be our president. I do not support impeachment or removal because it is essentially a fait accompli

However, your dithering on 6 January absolutely and concretely confirms that your time in Washington is over, forever. I will never vote for you again because you placed yourself above your office and the Constitution. 

Your actions have probably destroyed the Republican Party in its present form. And the damage that Biden-Harris will inflict on the nation will further illustrate the depths of your failure. Perhaps worst of all, the media’s false claims about gun-toting, redneck, racist conservatives that have been made for years have now been given a real example, the damaging results of which will not be known for a long time.

Goodbye, Mr. Trump. Go into that good night silently, please. Someday I will forgive you, but I don’t know when.

Kenny Moore is a missile defense engineer and college history teacher in Alabama

 

4 hours ago

Veronica Crock joins Commerce team as senior project manager

MONTGOMERY, Alabama – Veronica Crock, an experienced economic developer and former educator who focused on workforce preparedness, has joined the business development team at the Alabama Department of Commerce.

Crock, who holds the title of senior project manager, will concentrate her efforts on advanced manufacturing projects statewide. She will also have an initial focus on Southeast Alabama, where she previously worked as an economic developer.

“The project managers in Commerce’s Business Development Division work strategically to create opportunities and jobs for citizens all across Alabama, and Veronica has the expertise to help us advance that mission,” said Greg Canfield, Secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce.

“She is a great addition to our team.”

246

‘OUTSTANDING JOB’

Crock previously served as the president of the Ozark-Dale County Economic Development Corp. in the region that houses the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence/Fort Rucker and numerous aerospace companies.

She also served as president of Grow Southeast Alabama, an 11-county organization that promotes industrial growth and job creation across the region.

“Veronica is well known to our team at Commerce for the outstanding job she did in leading the local economic development efforts in Dale County, as well as her leadership with the regional efforts of Grow Southeast Alabama,” said Ted Clem, director of Commerce’s Business Development Division.

“We are excited to have someone of her caliber on our project management team.”

EXPERIENCE

Before starting her career in economic development, Crock served as dean at Enterprise State Community College and the Alabama Aviation College, where she collaborated with economic development organizations, local governments, and educational entities to establish a solid workforce development background.

She holds a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University, a master’s degree from Troy University, and completed doctoral research at Alabama State University. She is a graduate of the Applied Economic Development Honors Program at the University of Alabama and the Intensive Economic Development Training Institute at Auburn University.

“I am thankful for the opportunity to work with such a dedicated team of economic development professionals,” Crock said. “I look forward to serving the state in this new role and will work hard to be a valuable and contributing member of the Alabama team.”

(Courtesy of Made in Alabama)

6 hours ago

New respirators to aid front-line workers at Anniston hospital

A midnight run to Miami is helping protect health care workers at Regional Medical Center (RMC) in Anniston.

Thanks to the support of multiple community partners, RMC has obtained 20 Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPRs) that will be used by professional staff treating patients at the hospital who are suffering from COVID-19.

PAPRs are worn over the head, typically with a clear screen in front, to protect health care workers from potential exposure to airborne pathogens. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, PAPRs are in short supply, just when they are needed most.

316

RMC officials were able to secure a supply of PAPRs – in Miami – with help from the Oxford Police Department. Indeed, not only did the police help find the vital equipment, they also agreed to make an overnight dash to South Florida to retrieve them.

The officers arrived back in Anniston Tuesday morning and delivered the critical equipment to the grateful team at the hospital, which continues to see a surge in COVID patients. 

“Nearly a year into this pandemic, we are grateful for the continued support that has kept our physicians and staff going,” said Lagina Fillingim, RMC Foundation director. “Thank you to everyone who made this donation possible.”

Oxford Police Chief Bill Partridge said the department was happy to assist.

“If we help them, it’s going to help us,” Partridge said. “They’re first responders like we are. They’re on the front lines every day.”

He said Oxford Mayor Alton Craft reached out to the department to see if they could help the hospital locate the PAPRs. “I told him we’d certainly try,” Partridge said.

“We went ahead and made an emergency purchase because they’re in high demand. Two officers drove down to pick them up,” he said.

He said the PAPRs will not only help the hospital workers, they indirectly help the police department and the entire community.

“When an officer is hurt or injured in the line of duty, we need the doctors and nurses to take care of them, and they can’t do that if they’re sick with COVID,” Partridge said.

The PAPRs were purchased with support from the Alabama Power Foundation and other community partners, including Noble Bank, the Calhoun County Chamber of CommerceCalhoun County Economic Development Council and the Community Foundation of Northeast Alabama.

The RMC Foundation continues to seek donors to support a variety of programs at its affiliated facilities, including the purchase of needed equipment and supplies. To learn more or to donate, visit https://rmccares.org/donate-now/.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)