Technology for the Greater Good

July 29th, 2016   |  

Ever thought of using a video game as a form of therapy? Recently, video game developers have taken an interest in more than just entertaining the masses. They’ve partnered with scientists, doctors, and educators to develop games and artificial intelligence programs for the greater good.


FDA approved video games

There has been a growing concern with maladies such as ADHD, Alzheimer’s disease, and traumatic brain injuries (TBI), within our society in recent years.

Currently, these issues are commonly treated with medications. The problem with this type of treatment however, is that most of these drugs often come with harmful side effects. For example, children taking ADHD drugs can suffer from low appetite, weight loss, or difficulty sleeping.

In an effort to find a more effective solution to these problems, scientists, engineers, and game makers across the US have developed video games that could provide new solutions for these issues. To ensure that their digital products can help individuals, these companies are currently putting their virtual therapies through FDA testing before making them available to the general public.

Akili Interactive Labs, a Boston-based company, is in the process of conducting clinical trials to develop their video game, Project EVO. The game is designed to help children with ADHD strengthen the neural circuits responsible for key cognitive processes, such as attention and working memory which may be impaired by the disorder.

According to Scientific American, there are around 6.4 million children who struggle with paying attention and controlling impulses in the U.S. today.

Akili led a four-week study with scientists from Duke University’s School of Medicine and the Florida Clinical Research Center. During the study, 80 individuals ranging from 12-40 years of age that had been diagnosed with ADHD, played the video game five days a week in 30 minute sessions.

The hope is that “when you engage in the game pretty intensely for long periods of time, it actually reconditions how the brain processes information,” said Eddie Martucci, the co-founder of Akili.


Posit Science, a company based out of San Francisco, is also preparing their remedial game for FDA approval. Co-founded by pioneering neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, the company has completed its first small trial in India with ONTRAC’s (Online Neuroplasticity Training for Remediation of ADHD in Adolescent Children) computerized training program and U.C.S.F. neurobiologist Jyoti Mishra for ADHD.

Based on Mishra’s research, along with Merzenich and neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley, Posit’s ONTRAC program targets neural circuits responsible for ignoring distractions.

Posit Science’s study involved 31 children with ADHD. Half of the children were taking standard ADHD medications and the other half were not. Within six months, participants completed three to five half-hour training sessions per week. The ONTRAC trial evaluated ADHD symptom severity using a parent rating scale, and measured a child’s performance on their ability to pay attention, response inhibition, and working memory. 10 of the 21 ONTRAC study applicants completed less than half of the training. However, the program had the same effects on cognition and behavior as Akili’s study and the effects lasted when participants were tested again six months later.

Gazzaley is also working on a game which he believes will have a great effect on a user’s decision-making abilities. According to NPR, his video game focuses on multitasking by having the user guide a horse through the Aztec desert, while also having you tap on green carrots that pop up at the top of the screen while avoiding yellow carrots or radishes.

Gazzaley’s idea is, “If we created this — what we call a high-interference environment, with multitasking going on and lots of distraction…we put pressure in that environment, we would see benefits in other aspects of cognitive control.”

His hope is that one day; a video game might be prescribed to treat a child with ADHD, instead of a pill.

AI in the classroom

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has developed many tools to help humans problem solve. AI techniques have also been recognized as one of the most valuable applications in the field of special education.


The purpose of AI tools in the classroom is to improve a child’s experience with their surrounding environment in order to promote a better educational interaction, as well as to aid educators in enhancing their teaching abilities.

Here are just a few ways AI tools are shaping and defining the educational experience of the future.

  1. Automated grading. With classrooms getting larger, teachers are spending less time teaching and more time grading tests and assignments. AI has now made it possible for automated grading for assignments that have multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank testing.
  2. Adaptive educational software. Learning programs, games, and software are being created to look at an individual child’s needs. The program then puts more emphasis on the subjects the child is struggling with by repeating tasks or topics until they have mastered it. This allows the student to work at their own pace without falling behind, providing tailored support when needed to the educator.
  3. AI can help improve courses and lectures. When educators have many different topics to teach, they sometimes have gaps in their lessons which can leave a student confused about specific concepts. Coursera, a large open course provider, is an AI solution to this problem. It provides students with explanations and hints to the correct answer. It also alerts the teacher when the majority of the class gets an assignment wrong.
  4. AI Tutors. Some schools offer programs where students can get help with basic mathematics, writing, and other topics using chatbots and AI programs.
  5. AI programs that provide feedback to teachers and students. Not only is AI aiding teachers with grading tests and their courses, AI can now give progress reports on how well their class is doing. The system will monitor students’ progress throughout the year and alert the teacher when students are struggling. This can give students the extra help they need and also provide teachers with suggestions on course improvements.
  6. AI is changing the role of teachers. Artificial Intelligence is, without a doubt, changing what it means to be a teacher. Not only could AI handle the time consuming tasks of grading homework and tests, but they could also develop lessons specifically tailored to each individual student in the classroom. Teachers could potentially fall into the role of a facilitator that provides more assistance to the lessons and focuses on the human interaction with the students.
  7. AI is used for social therapy. Many students with special needs, such as autism, have shown to have better results and social improvements when working with computers or social robots. Children with autism feel more comfortable around AI technology due to the predictability with human emotions and expression, as well as, the freedom from judgement. The end goal is that the children will be able to assimilate better with others.

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