Artificial intelligence (AI), the ability of machines to mimic human intelligence, used to be the stuff of sci-fi movies, but now it’s part of our everyday lives. It’s beavering quietly in the background when we’re online, suggesting products for us to buy or films that match our interests, but it also has the power to be a meaningful force for good. Neil Cronin, a sports scientist and professor at the University of Jyväskylä (JYU), recognised the potential of AI to revolutionise medical and sports technology. He works in the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences, the only university-level unit for sport and physical exercise education in Finland, known worldwide for its cutting-edge research.
Neil studies human locomotion and medical image processing. After reading about AI for a couple of years, he was keen to get hands-on experience, so he approached senior management in JYU with an unusual request. Could he take time away from his teaching and other university commitments to do a Master’s in Cognitive Computing and Collective Intelligence at JYU? “I was fortunate because, without exception, they were all really supportive,” he says. “The Dean of our faculty said, ‘I can tell that it’s something that’s going to be a huge part of what we do in the future. So I think we need somebody who actually is a central part of that.’” The administration recognised that it would further the long-term goals of the faculty to support people’s health and wellbeing from childhood to old age.
Neil completed his Master’s last year and is applying what he’s learnt to his research. At present, he’s working with a company that wants to give real-time feedback to patients about their movements. The AI system they’re developing has a wide range of applications; it could be beneficial for patients undergoing rehabilitation or even to guide training for athletes. The beauty of using AI is that it allows researchers to break free from the constraints of the lab and measure how people move in the real world. “With the processing speed and algorithms that we have now, in theory, you can do these things even with a mobile phone. My dream is to put these tools in the hands of clinicians, therapists or anybody. So they can literally just go anywhere, pull out their phone and start doing the analysis,” he says.
Neil is also working on software for automating the processing of ultrasound images and scans like bone density DEXA scans, MRIs and CT scans. The aim is to free up time for doctors, so instead of spending valuable time interpreting images, they could have more quality time with their patients. His group is collaborating with the local hospital and planning to develop algorithms that could be used anywhere. He says, “Ideally, you develop one central algorithm that, let’s say, does certain things with MRI scans, and then anybody in the world can just plug in their images to that. I really like this kind of open-source movement where you don’t just develop a tool for your own use, it’s for anybody to use and develop, and hopefully, they make it better and add more functionality.”
This type of multidisciplinary research is encouraged at JYU and also by many of the grant-awarding agencies as it broadens the scope of the research. One of the major benefits of working in the Sport and Health Sciences Faculty is the high-quality research labs, staffed by four full-time technicians. Neil points out that this level of staffing is a rarity, not found in similar-sized departments in other countries and says, “They’re just an incredibly talented group of people. Without them, 90% of what we do wouldn’t have been possible.”
Although originally from the UK, Neil has been a full-time researcher at JYU for the last ten years. He thoroughly enjoys being in Jyväskylä, a city surrounded by forests and lakes, and finds it a very relaxing place to live. He credits the academic freedom and trust given to people for the high level of job satisfaction at the university. He says, “It almost doesn’t feel like a job, and I mean that in a very positive way. It’s something that I really enjoy and I look forward to going to work. I think not everybody has that privilege, so I’m grateful for that.”
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Neil is a professor at the University of Jyväskylä who studies human locomotion and image processing. His research currently focuses on the development of analysis methods using AI techniques such as Deep Learning (Convolutional Neural Networks).