How eye-AI can revolutionise autism testing

Published on the 07/11/2017 | Written by Jonathan Cotton

NEC autism testing

Smartphone could provide everything necessary for remote assessments…

It’s rare you come across a feel-good tech story with no strings attached, but NEC’s recent deal with Telethon Kids Institute (an Australian children’s health research institute) may be just that.

The ICT company is working with the children’s group to explore whether NEC’s artificial intelligence algorithms for eye tracking and facial recognition might be used to develop new diagnostic tools for detecting autism at a young age.

Current testing sees researchers present children with two images – one an inanimate object, the other a human face. Children with a predisposition to develop autism tend to dwell on the object rather than the face. It’s hoped that NEC’s AI technology will be able to detect such behaviour on par with current testing methods. If it works, it will roll out in to remote communities.

“NEC’s mission here is to help in the data and analysis,” said Gordon Gay, general manager of R&D at NEC.

“We have this eye tracking technology already so we’re investigating whether we can apply it to these tests and, in the future, enable deployment to clinics all around the country. There’s currently only one lab in the research facility [and] we’re looking to make it more accessible for everyone – especially for people in remotes areas.”

Testing has been underway for a month now. The next step is for NEC to work through the collected data to determine whether its technology will give a result comparable to current methods. If so, new levels of accessibility for conducting tests might open up.

“We can do this via a webcam, tracking the movement of the eye, potentially, through a laptop. The current system uses machinery that costs roughly $20,000. The cost of a webcam and the software is, of course, considerably less than that. So the form factor is a question. Why not conduct these tests via a smartphone, for example? But hopefully – and this is the big hope – we can go down the path of developing a system that we can deploy in lots of clinics,” added Gay.

It’s an area ripe for innovation. Autism spectrum conditions affect approximately 125,000 people in Australia, meaning around half a million families are directly impacted by these conditions. Early detection can allow health professionals and parents to implement changes and strategies to better manage it.

“Globally there’s a lot of work already going on,” said Gay, “and the data shows that early diagnosis using this simple test is promising.”

He said the beauty of science is the transferability of knowledge and techniques. “You take something from one area and apply it to another. Here, that’s potentially enabling testing at a much larger scale – all through technology we already have.”

Including, he said, NEC’s facial recognition technology.

“We’re looking to see if we can teach machines to learn feature sets of faces. That has many applications. There is potential for its use in Foetal Alcohol Syndrome – taking images of babies to get an indication of whether they have the condition. In the metabolic and genetic area, where they keep databases of faces, there’s great potential to produce diagnostic tools. There’s a lot of work ongoing in this area.”

The face is part of genetic inheritance. “In the early phases of life, specialists can use this technology as a diagnostic tool. As we present faces to artificial intelligence engines we have the opportunity to discover patterns that we would otherwise miss and with that, we may find lots of applications in new areas.”

But for now, he said, NEC is focused on confirming the system’s efficacy for early autism testing, then looking at what form factor makes the most sense.

“If the results look good in two months we’ll start developing a simple system. If everything lines up, we could be talking six months to a year [for the rollout]. That’s best case scenario, but it looks promising.”

NEC Australia and the Telethon Kids Institute have agreed to jointly own any intellectual property created under the agreement.

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