Brandon Pitts Receives NSF CAREER Award

Assistant Professor of Industrial Engineering, Brandon Pitts, has received the National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award, which is the NSF’s most prestigious award in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.
Assistant Professor of Industrial Engineering, Brandon Pitts
Brandon Pitts, Assistant Professor of Industrial Engineering and Faculty Associate, Center on Aging and the Life Course


Pitts will lead a 5-year research program that aims to develop a framework to evaluate how older adults apply their accumulated knowledge in safety-critical, dynamic settings. The project, titled "With Age Comes Wisdom: Leveraging Older Adults' Crystallized Decision-Making Abilities to Develop Adaptive Human-Automation Interfaces for Dynamic Environments," also aims to build customized decision support tools tailored to specific needs of older populations.

Autonomous systems and artificial intelligence (AI) are becoming more widespread across many transportation, work, healthcare, and leisure environments, and are alternating human behavior in new ways. The long-term goal of this CAREER project is to provide insight into how adults' prior knowledge and experiences shape their interactions with automation and AI, and then apply this insight to the design of emerging intelligent systems. 

According to Pitts, who has been studying issues related to aging since he began his Ph.D. in 2011, older adults are the fastest-growing age group around the world, which brings many societal challenges as well as opportunities. Through his many experiments over the years, Pitts has learned that "not all is lost with age."  In other words, these experiments, which mostly relate to driving, have shown Pitts and his team that older adults are thoughtfully calculated and adopt strategies that help them optimize whatever it is they're trying to do. For example, when driving, they know very well how to avoid in-vehicle-distractions and they are quick to identify road/safety hazards, which represent abilities gained with age. 

When it came to writing this grant, Pitts realized that his observation that all is not lost with age is a perspective that has been mostly ignored in most research on aging and technology, which he referred to as his "lightbulb moment." So, to address this shortcoming, Pitts and his lab are setting out to discover how these different types of age-related abilities manifest themselves when older adults try to complete activities with the assistance of automation and AI. The primary focus of the work will be driving, a domain for which Pitts has developed expertise and an environment for which new technologies are constantly infiltrating.  

This project also innovatively integrates an education component that will engage and empower older adults as well as undergraduate, graduate, and underrepresented students through the development of an interactive online learning community and technology platform, community-based ‘design for aging’ research projects, and annual ‘digital design for aging’ competitions.

Pitts is hopeful that the outcomes from this award will help to ensure that future technologies are designed to consider how older populations think and navigate the world. But, his greater hope is that the work spurs a more widespread discussion about the best ways to ensure that our knowledge of who older adults are is incorporated into the design of future technologies early on during product conception. 

Related Links:

NSF Career Award with Abstract

Blog post: Connecting older adults with smart tech - by design

A recent interview with Brandon Pitts