1 year ago

Grant expands University of Alabama professor’s human-computer interaction research

University of Alabama computer science professor has received a grant to better understand how K-12 students in the Alabama Black Belt perceive human-computer interaction.

Dr. Chris Crawford, UA assistant professor of computer science, was awarded an approximate $276,000 National Science Foundation grant to develop technology that allows children to get hands-on experiences building neurofeedback programs, a type of biofeedback application that uses near real-time visualizations of brain activity to teach self-regulation.

“All of the previous popular approaches involve using traditional input modalities like a game controller, keyboard or a mouse,” Crawford said. “So, one of the things that we don’t understand is what kinds of observations will we have when kids are presented with this novel input modality, which is basically their cognitive commands or their thoughts, and how does that influence the way they gain computational thinking skills.”

Crawford’s focus on physiological computing, any closed-loop technological system that incorporates physiological data, dates back to his time in graduate school, when the increase of consumer-grade or home-use technologies sparked interest in non-critical applications to engage students.

Previously, Crawford worked on a project involving brain-controlled drone racing, which helped influence the idea for his current research. During that project, Crawford and his team connected electroencephalogram, or EEG, devices to drones, and people raced each other with their brains as opposed to controllers.

“The motivation for the initial reason to look at neurophysiological technology, and the way I am looking at it, is because once we did this, it went viral,” Crawford said. “A lot of people started emailing me saying, ‘How do we build these types of systems?’”

The new grant will help Crawford research building computer science education and non-critical applications based on how students in the Alabama Black Belt in K-12 relate to this technology an educational and practical way.

“This is the first time we are starting from scratch to see exactly how to best design this type of technology for people who may not be very experienced in computer science or in neuroscience techniques in general,” Crawford said.

The co-principal investigator on the grant is Dr. Andre Denham, associate professor of instructional technology for UA’s College of Education. Denham will ensure the technology addresses the needs found during the preliminary research.

The process will focus on understanding how people learn ways to interface, or exchange information, with new physiological systems. This analysis will set the fundamental groundwork for future research on physiological computing.

“I have ideas of what I expect, but it’s so unexplored,” Crawford said. “Who knows what we will come up with in this research? It was great to get the award, but to be awarded to do something this exploratory is a great feeling.”

The similar interests of the Education and Human Resources Division of NSF led Crawford to apply for the grant. Crawford said most of the research in this field focuses on building end-user technology, which results in applications computer scientists think people want rather than the types of applications people actually need.

“It’s understanding the learning process that crosses the bridge of CS education and neuroscience where the students are not just the users of the technology, they actually have a hand-in-hand role in designing and implementing the technology itself,” Crawford said. “What we hope is that this then leads to more novel types of ways to use the technology, because you have a broader population of people actually looking at using it because they understand how it works.”

This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama’s website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

7 seconds ago

Did the lockdown save lives?

In March, states undertook dramatic and unprecedented measures to stem the spread of the SARS2-COV virus. And yet COVID-19 has claimed 100,000 lives in the United States. Was the lockdown effective? Economists frequently address such questions in our research.

Seeing the unseen, or the path that we did not choose, is the key here. It is the fundamental challenge of economics, as illustrated by Frederic Bastiat’s parable of the broken window. A shopkeeper must replace a broken window. A neighbor, perhaps offering solace, points out that if windows never got broken, the town glazier would starve. To avoid believing that broken windows boost the economy, we must recognize what the shopkeeper did not buy due to replacing the window.

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Economists visualize the alternative paths we could choose. What would have happened if we didn’t pass NAFTA, or hadn’t bailed out banks during the financial crisis, or if we raised the minimum wage to $15 per hour? The term counterfactual refers to the unchosen path.

Economists devise principles for constructing counterfactuals. Scenarios must be logically coherent and consistent with the available evidence. We must avoid overly optimistic or pessimistic alternatives.

I have never estimated potential deaths in an outbreak of a disease but have researched tornado warnings and “worst case” tornadoes. Like most economists, I recognize the challenges in evaluating the lockdown.

Here’s a first challenge. WalletHub has scored the strictness of states’ COVID protection measures. The average COVID fatality rate for the 10 states with the strictest lockdown policies is 686 per million residents, versus a fatality rate of 68 for the 10 least strict states, or one-tenth as much. The three highest fatality rate states are among the ten strictest states.

Does this show that lockdowns cause COVID-19 deaths? No. The states suffering the worst outbreaks will impose the strictest measures. This is the endogeneity of policy problem. Ignoring this issue would lead us to conclude that hospitals cause death because many people die there. Controlling for policy endogeneity is a major research focus.

Another problem arises because states imposed policies and Americans realized that COVID-19 was a serious health threat at about the same time. The NBA suspended its season March 11, people sharply reduced travel around March 15, and the first state stay-at-home order took effect March 19. We have very few data points to tease out the effect of various policies from behavioral changes.

The United States was slow in rolling out testing for COVID-19, creating another challenge. If we compared the number of COVID-19 cases in the month before and after lockdowns to test effectiveness, the total would rise simply because many more people were tested. Can we detect a decline in infections during a period of expanding testing?

Even if March’s lockdown was effective, the policies may not be effective in another time or place. Policy effects may not transfer for several reasons. For the COVID lockdown, an important factor is peoples’ willingness to comply. If Americans do not favor shutting down the economy for a second wave of the virus, stay-at-home orders may prove ineffective when reimplemented.

Researchers at Columbia University have evaluated the lockdown, based on computer simulations with travel data between cities and reported cases and deaths. The policies appear to have stemmed the illness; indeed implementation of the same policies two weeks earlier could have avoided 83% of U.S. deaths through May 3.

The sophisticated technical analysis here, I think, obscures a bigger point. “Nonpharmaceutical interventions,” as epidemiologists call such policies, do not prevent COVID-19 deaths. Americans who did not get COVID this spring can still get sick next fall. Only a vaccine or effective treatment will truly prevent deaths.

Whether school closings and stay-at-home orders slow an outbreak is an important and really challenging research question. This question must be answered before we compare economic costs and health benefits. Ultimately a lockdown is merely a delaying action. Delaying actions are only worth fighting as part of a larger strategy.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.

18 mins ago

Alabamians support NASA mission returning astronauts to space from American soil

As soon as NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley lifted off atop a SpaceX rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, reaction from all corners of Alabama was swift.

Saturday afternoon’s launch set forth the commercial crew era of U.S. human spaceflight, and significant support for the mission is taking place at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.

“What a great day for NASA, what a great day for SpaceX, and what a great day for the United States of America,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at a Saturday evening press conference. “It’s been nine years since we’ve launched American astronauts on American rockets from American soil, and now we have done it again.”

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After the launch was scrubbed earlier in the week due to inclement weather, the NASA Marshall team prepared for the next launch window during the days in between.

Following the successful launch, Congressman Robert Aderholt (AL-04) congratulated Behnken and Hurley through a series of tweets, adding, “Success in space has always required close work between the private sector and NASA. I look forward to a regular tempo of crewed flights to the Space Station followed soon by flights of the Space Launch System program.”

Congressman Bradley Byrne (AL-01) sought to convey the historic nature of the launch.

“FANTASTIC for America!” were the words of Congressman Mo Brooks (AL-05).

The spacecraft arrived to orbit and separation occurred about 12 minutes into the flight. The crew has spent several hours performing maneuvers to prepare for docking at the International Space Station on Sunday morning. Hatches should open and the crew will board the station sometime around 11:45 a.m. CST.

At the conclusion of their time on the International Space Station, Behnken and Hurley will depart aboard the spacecraft on their way to reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Targeted splashdown is off of Florida’s Atlantic coast.

Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer Multimedia

35 mins ago

Alabama doctor treats, then beats COVID-19

Dr. Brandon White has never drowned before. But after fighting the battle of his life with COVID-19, he has experienced the closest thing to it.

“Just sitting on the bed, I felt like I couldn’t get my breath. While I have never drowned, that would be the best way I could describe the sensation,” White said. “I was on oxygen, and I still wasn’t getting any better. That was the most concerning part of it.”

White, a doctor at UAB Medical West in Bessemer, was working long hours in the hospital’s intensive care and isolation units treating some of the worse coronavirus cases when the unthinkable happened: He was knocked down by the disease. Now, nearly a month later, with much of that time in the ICU, he is back on his feet and has returned to his job on the front lines of the pandemic.

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“I’m a pretty young person,” the 42-year-old said. “I don’t have any underlying medical conditions, and I have never been a smoker. I would never in my wildest dreams have expected to be one of the folks who ended up that sick.”

Alabama doctor talks about surviving COVID-19 from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

After the pandemic began, White’s schedule became more hectic than ever.

Along with working 12-hour shifts for seven days every other week, White was on call around the clock as a hospice doctor and had a telemedicine practice. In addition, he launched BHMCares, which he was overseeing almost single-handedly until his illness forced him to pass the reins to his friends. BHMCares is a coordinated effort to provide meals from local restaurants to health care workers at Birmingham-area hospitals, cancer centers, COVID-19 drive-thru testing sites and labs.

It was in late April during one of his weeks away from the hospital when White started feeling tired and a bit lightheaded – symptoms that were short-lived.

“If nothing else had developed, I wouldn’t have thought of myself as being sick,” he said. “I live by myself, and I hadn’t been anywhere since I had left work on Sunday. I would have just chalked it up to being tired and underrested.”

By the next night, White, who had been experiencing body aches and a lack of energy earlier that day, began running a fever of about 104 degrees F. He woke up, with his sheets and clothes soaked with sweat. That happened again and again. From that point, it was a “rapid downhill decline,” White noted.

Two days later, White tested positive for the virus at a nearby COVID-19 drive-thru facility. He then began experiencing a shortness of breath and was extremely fatigued.

“I couldn’t eat or drink, and I lost my sense of taste and smell,” White said. “I felt so bad I didn’t even want to get out of bed. It was a struggle to walk from one end of my small apartment to the other.”

That’s when White drove himself to his hospital in Bessemer, thinking that some intravenous fluids and oxygen would put him on the road to recovery. When nothing seemed to work, he was moved downtown to UAB Hospital’s ICU for more aggressive treatment.

As the days passed, White continued to grow worse.

“I’m not an excitable person,” he said. “But as a doctor who works in ICU every day, I knew what my chances were. It was also alarming to see the doctors, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and nurses hovering outside my door, and cautiously looking in at me. I knew exactly what that meant. They’re just waiting for the bad thing to happen.”

White said the turning point was when the doctors decided to treat him with “convalescent plasma” that has been taken from patients who have recovered from the disease. The hope is that the plasma is filled with antibodies that will fight the infection.

The plasma was not an instant fix, White said.

“For a couple of days, I continued to get worse,” White said. “The fevers were worse, the body aches were persistent, and I could feel myself being more short of breath, just lying in bed – not speaking, not moving, not doing anything. Then, a couple of days after I received the plasma, I felt myself plateau.”

White said that’s when his stamina and energy began to increase slowly, day by day. He has lost 15 pounds and has not yet regained his sense of taste and smell.

“I get hungry and so I eat,” said White. “But I don’t taste it, so I eat until I’m not hungry and go on to something else.”

Although White took a lighter patient load when he returned to work last week, it was business as usual. His first stop was to treat a patient who was in the worst throes of COVID-19.

White said as an added precaution, he now wears a full-face respirator, instead of an N95 mask, while treating patients.

“I wear a mask everywhere except at home,” he said. “The thing that bothers me the most is the number of people walking around who don’t have a mask on and are not social distancing. Take it seriously. Just because the restrictions are being lifted, it doesn’t mean the disease has gone away by any stretch of the imagination.”

White said no one is immune.

“If you don’t work in health care and don’t see it, most of us don’t think it will happen to us,” he said. “I’m proof that somebody relatively young and healthy can get severely sick. You can die from it.”

White has also returned to lending a hand with BHMCares, which has now delivered more than 4,800 meals to area health care workers.

“It’s probably the most fun thing I’ve done in my life,” he said. “I never thought it would be as big as it is, and I never thought it would be as rewarding as it is. It has been really fun.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

1 hour ago

Cameras (AKA the government) on every corner — A Crisco sorta slope

I remember the collective groan that went up from motorists when “red light cameras” became a thing. Suddenly, it didn’t matter if the police were around to see you push your luck with a changing traffic light.

Big Brother always would.

The heightened accountability at busy intersections felt a bit creepy and oppressive, but most drivers shrugged it off as the price we must pay for safer roadways.

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Now the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) is considering the requests of multiple public and private entities to use rights-of-way to install more surveillance equipment. In 2020, we’re way past red-light cameras and license plate readers; on the table now are other technologies such as legacy surveillance cameras and gunshot detection arrays.

Some will argue that more information in the hands of law enforcement is always a good thing and increases our collective safety. There are indeed legitimate reasons to equip law enforcement with the tools they need to do their jobs well.

But when it comes to increased surveillance and the privacy of law-abiding citizens, we are standing on a slope covered in Crisco.

Data and surveillance information are only as noble as the hands that hold them, and the laws that govern their use.

It’s one thing to allow the collection of license plate numbers when a red-light infraction is detected. (And even this is an imperfect law enforcement mechanism; it tells you to whom the offending car is registered, but not who was driving.) But legacy surveillance cameras are another level altogether.

Cameras set up to allow the government to monitor our daily lives remotely should alarm those who value individual liberty and who want to restrain government. As much as we respect our friends in law enforcement, and acknowledge the challenges of their task, the fact remains that they are an arm of the government.

In its April 2 public notice detailing the permitting process for the installation of such equipment, ALDOT acknowledged the privacy concerns at stake and demonstrated a willingness to restrict permits to local governments and law enforcement agencies. Additionally, the agency says that “the use of accommodated sensors and all collected data shall be strictly limited to law enforcement or public safety purposes, whether maintained or stored by the governmental entity or any private service provider.”

The question then becomes: who gets to decide what is and is not a legitimate law enforcement and public safety purpose? The former is a broad category, the latter even more so.

This is a question with profound implications for personal privacy and should be governed by carefully structured law.

It is too important to leave to the interpretation of departmental regulation and scant oversight. Surveillance and data collection technology advance so rapidly that leaving these permits available to any device or technology that may be deemed useful to law enforcement and public safety is far too broad.

Why?

Because we evaluate these questions and calculate risks in practical terms based on the technology known to us today. But what about technology that will emerge tomorrow? Are we willing to write a blank check and leave it in the hands of ALDOT and law enforcement agencies?

Admittedly, our engagement with the internet and cellular networks has made the concept of personal privacy all but a joke in modern life. Heck, I’ve traded some privacy away so that Chick-fil-A can have the sandwich I ordered on their app ready at the precise moment I roll into their parking lot.

But at least when it comes to my phone or computer, I reserve the right to throw it off a bridge one day and retreat from digital view. Government-installed cameras in public spaces and on roadways strip us of that option entirely.

I’m not sure allowing the government to know our every move even yields the promised safety, but I do know that it costs each of us something.

Our lawmakers should get to work capping that cost and keeping Big Brother on a leash.

Dana Hall McCain, a widely published writer on faith, culture, and politics, is Resident Fellow of the Alabama Policy Institute; reach her on Twitter at @dhmccain.

API is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit research and educational organization dedicated to free markets, limited government, and strong families; learn more at alabamapolicy.org.

2 hours ago

UAB says thank you to area restaurants and others for supporting Meals for Heroes program

A campaign to feed front-line health care workers caring for coronavirus patients raised more than $76,000 and served more than 16,000 meals in less than five weeks. Meals for Heroes, which launched April 1 and closed in early May, was a collaboration between the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s advancement office and the UAB Department of Food and Nutrition Services. It was created to feed health care providers and administrative staff at UAB hospitals and the remote COVID-19 testing site where long shifts and busy schedules often leave them no time to purchase food.

“The donation through Meals for Heroes provided meals to lab personnel on April 20, during National Lab Appreciation Week,” said Sherry Polhill, associate vice president for Hospital Laboratories, Respiratory Care and Pulmonary Function Services at UAB Medicine. “UAB Hospital Labs appreciate the Birmingham community for their generosity and acts of service.”

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UAB Football head coach Bill Clark and his wife, Jennifer, along with the Heart of Alabama Chevy Dealers, gave $10,000 to the campaign, which placed orders with local restaurants and caterers in an effort to help support community partners and bolster Birmingham businesses. Many partners provided in-kind meal donations, including Milo’s Tea Co., Jimmy John’s, Newk’s and other restaurants. UAB Food Services worked with businesses to ensure specific food safety guidelines were met, and also served more than 5,800 meals to compassionate care caregivers.

“The outpouring of support from churches, synagogues, restaurants, businesses and individuals in our community has been amazing,” said Charlotte Beeker, associate vice president for Food, Nutrition and Guest Services at UAB Medicine. “The donations made by these groups and so many others to support the Meals for Heroes campaign just shows what a great community we live in. Our health care workers have been heroic in their efforts during this pandemic and our community has been equally heroic in their flood of care and encouragement.”

At the end of the Meals for Heroes campaign, the remaining gift balance was $21,000, which Beeker says will be used to continue feeding health care workers caring for COVID-19 patients.

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

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)