VKC investigators to lead $5 million NSF-funded expansion of ASD workforce program

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The National Science Foundation has awarded a highly competitive $5 million grant to greatly expand a project for creating novel artificial intelligence (AI) technology and tools and platforms that train and support individuals with autism spectrum disorders in the workplace.

VKC members and investigators include Nilanjan Sarkar, Ph.D. (Engineering), Zachary E. Warren, Ph.D. (Pediatrics), Keivan Stassun, Ph.D. (Physics & Astronomy), Maithilee Kunda Ph.D. (Computer Science), and Timothy Vogus, Ph.D. (Owen Graduate School of Management).

The significant federal investment follows a successful $1 million, nine-month pilot grant to the same team that forged partnerships with employers and other stakeholders and produced viable prototypes through immersive, human-centric design. The multi-university team includes Yale University, Cornell University, Georgia Institute of Technology, and Vanderbilt University and Vanderbilt University Medical Center as academic partners.

Nilanjan Sarkar smiling

Nilanjan Sarkar, Ph.D.

The grant, made through NSF’s Convergence Accelerator program, uses a new framework called “Inclusion AI,” supporting “meaningful, individualized workforce engagement of an existing, underutilized neurodiverse U.S. talent pool, in addition to supporting a more inclusive national employment landscape,” said Sarkar. “This is a critical but overlooked public health and economic challenge: how to meaningfully include individuals with ASD – a large, chronically unemployed and underemployed population.”

Consider:

  • One in 54 people in the United States has ASD;
  • Each year, 70,000 young adults with ASD leave high school and face grim employment prospects;
  • More than 8 in 10 adults with ASD are either unemployed or underemployed, a significantly higher rate than adults with other developmental disabilities;
  • The estimated lifetime cost of supporting an individual with ASD and limited employment prospects is $3.2 million;
  • The total estimated cost of caring for Americans with ASD was $268 billion in 2015 and projected to grow to $461 billion in 2025; and
  • An estimated $50,000 per person per year could be contributed back into society when individuals with ASD are employed.

“We want to harness the power of AI, stakeholder engagement, and convergent research to include neurodiverse individuals in the 21st century workforce,” said Sarkar. “We feel that there is a big opportunity to turn great societal cost into great societal value.”

The NSF in recent years has increased its efforts to have experts from diverse fields converge to tackle a profound challenge through its Convergence Accelerator program. By definition, NSF Convergence grants support fundamental research leading to rapid advances that can deliver significant societal impact.

For this project, organizational, clinical and implementation experts are integrated with engineering teams to pave the way for real-world impact. The multi-university, multi-disciplinary team already has commitments from major employers to license some of the technology and tools developed.

artificial intelligence screenshot

One of the AI-based tools measures anxiety levels during job interview settings. The system tracks eye gaze and provides feedback and coaching.

Researchers will address three themes: individualized assessment of unique abilities and appropriate job-matching; tailored understanding and ongoing support related to social communication and interaction challenges; and tools to support job candidates, employees and employers.

In all, the project includes further development, refinement, and testing of five separate technologies prototyped in Phase I. They are:

  • An assessment system that integrates a wearable eye tracker, scene cameras, and computer vision algorithms to produce a detailed record of a person’s performance in visuospatial cognitive tasks;
  • A virtual reality-based job interview simulator that senses a user’s anxiety and attention through wearable computing and provides feedback and coaching;
  • A collaborative virtual reality platform to assess and help team-building skills through peer-based and intelligent agent-based interaction;
  • A social robot for use in home environments to improve resilience and tolerance with job-related interruption; and
  • A computer vision-based tool to assess non-verbal communication in real-world settings.

Already, notable private-sector companies that employ people with ASD have committed to using at least one of the technologies developed under this program, Auticon, The Precisionists, Ernst & Young, and SAP among them.

Two other companies, Floreo and Tipping Point Media, will make their existing VR modules available for adaptation to the program. Microsoft, which has a long-standing interest in hiring people with ASD, is involved as well and provided seed funding and access to cloud services for technology integration.

The five technologies can be used separately or as an integrated system, and the work has broader potential beyond ASD to expand employment access. In the U.S. alone, an estimated 50 million people have ASD, attention-deficit/ hyper-activity disorder, learning disability, or other neurodiverse conditions.

“A more diverse workforce benefits employers as well as individuals with neurodiverse conditions,” Sarkar said. “These tools and technology will have an even larger impact in helping marginalized populations with meaningful employment.”

Pam Coyle is a feature writer in the school of Engineering at Vanderbilt University.

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