Meet Dr. Mathias Unberath, Co-Director of the Technology Identification and Training Core at JH AITC, where his innovative work is reshaping the way we approach healthcare technology. By day, Dr. Unberath serves as an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Johns Hopkins University, with core faculty roles in both the Laboratory for Computational Sensing and Robotics and the Malone Center for Engineering in Healthcare, as well as secondary appointments in the School of Medicine. Leading the Advanced Robotics and Computationally AugmenteD Environments (ARCADE) Lab, Dr. Unberath's research is at the cutting edge of developing collaborative intelligent systems and combines imaging, computer vision, machine learning, and interaction design. His approach is holistic, focusing on creating human-centered solutions using technologies such as mixed reality and robotics, and closely collaborating with healthcare providers to identify disruptive use cases. In this interview, follow along as we explore Dr. Unberath's perspectives on the role of technology in aging and dementia care, his insights into the emotional and practical challenges in this field, and his advice for emerging researchers and startups in the AgeTech space. Discover how his unique blend of expertise is contributing to transformative changes in healthcare.
#1 - Can you share with us a little about your work or research?
With my group—the Advanced Robotics and Computationally AugmenteD Environments (ARCADE) Lab—I am working to advance healthcare by creating collaborative intelligent systems that transform clinical workflows. Through synergistic research on imaging, computer vision, machine learning, and interaction design, we build human-centered solutions that are embodied in emerging technology such as mixed reality and robotics. My approach to creating these systems is holistic, and thus, I collaborate closely with providers to identify disruptive use cases as well as engineering colleagues to design innovative solutions.
#2 - What initially drew you to this intersection of AI, AgeTech, aging, and dementia? Is there a personal story or motivation behind your commitment to this field?
Talking with my parents about some of my research, the research we fund as part of the AITC, and related efforts, their initial reactions were quite reserved, not at all echoing the enthusiasm that I and colleagues feel when appreciating the recent advances in AI and technology for healthy aging. Only after some of these conversations did I learn that the reason for the reservation was their interpretation that this technology is "for the older generation"—they were not seeing themselves as the benefactors of these technological advancements. In a way, this misinterpretation is deeply human; I still often feel like I am in my mid-20s, a feeling that will likely never change. But this is where we have a lot of opportunities: exposing people to transformative technology early to make sure that by the time they need it, they are capable and willing to use it for their own and their caregivers’ benefit.
#3 - In your view, where is the biggest gap in the current landscape of aging and dementia research and care, and how can AI and emerging technologies help bridge this?
The amount of labor and emotional availability in caring for aging adults, especially people suffering from dementia, can be debilitating for family caregivers. Similarly, the requirements for professional caregivers, driven by economic considerations, lead to rushed interactions. In both scenarios, the emotional and human connection between the aging adults and their caregivers is suffering, as caregivers struggle to meet the basic necessities and don't have bandwidth, emotional or otherwise, to connect. This is where I believe technology, AI and other, can help reduce the burden on caregivers and aging adults, making more time and freeing up resources for more casual interaction and bonding.
#4 - Any words of wisdom for budding startups or researchers eager to dive into the AI and AgeTech space?
There clearly is a lot of opportunity, some obvious, some maybe not so obvious. We're seeing a lot of interesting applications with plenty of potential. What the most promising applications clearly have in common is that they are rooted in a deep understanding of aging adults' and their caregivers' needs and desires, and have a clear understanding how the technology will improve healthy aging along the many dimensions that one may consider. At the AITCs, we have Stakeholder Engagement Cores and related resources to help people understand possible product market fit or just engage in some form of human-centered design to ensure that there is not just technological appeal, but clear opportunity and need.
#5 - Outside of the lab or office, what’s a hobby or activity you're passionate about?
Outside the lab I continue thinking about healthy aging, but for a different target group: my 3 and 5 year olds, who of course have very different needs and desires—it is, however, quite fascinating to see the possibilities and perils that technology and AI also pose for this demographic. Finally, I enjoy spending time outdoors, running, hiking, and biking with and without the family.