CQUni-led chatbot project to boost physical activity gains $1.5m in NHMRC funding

04 November 2021

A CQUniversity project to create a chatbot that provides highly personalised physical activity advice' has been awarded almost $1.5m in Ideas Grants funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

As less than half of Australian adults meet the National Physical Activity Guidelines' physical activity is a leading modifiable cause of death and disease in Australia.

Led by CQUniversity Professor Corneel Vandelanotte' the project will aim to develop a sophisticated chatbot that uses machine learning to provide highly personalised physical activity advice in real-time.

The $1.497m in funding will be used to develop the chatbot and train its algorithms through interactions with thousands of users on the 10'000 Steps platform. The effectiveness of the chatbot will be assessed both in controlled circumstances (a two-group randomised controlled trial) and in real-world circumstances (ecological trial).

"We know that if people use the websites and apps we develop to help them become more active in the way they were intended to be used' it would make a big difference in how active they are' but the problem is that most people tend to disengage from using those types of behaviour change interventions pretty quickly and if they are not using those programs' then they can't help them'" Prof Vandelanotte said.

"So' this chatbot project is about finding a way around the lack of engagement problem. How can we keep people hooked for longer in a meaningful way' long enough so they have time to turn their new physical activity behaviour into a well-established and deeply ingrained lifelong habit?"

Prof Vandelanotte said a lot of research had already been conducted into conventional ways to personalise interventions for people by using machine learning and this was the next logical step.

"This is why we are going up to the next level to apply advanced machine learning algorithms that are dynamic in nature and can improve over time – that is' the program gets to know you better and better the more you use it.

"It understands what works for you specifically and what doesn't and adapts accordingly. It's like precision medicine but applied to changing health behaviours."

He said the concept is unique' innovative and potentially' revolutionary.

"This new funding from the NHMRC puts us in the best possible position to make it work' we now have everything we need to give it our best possible shot'" he said.

Other researchers on the project include CQUniversity's Dr Quyen To' Dr Tasadduq Imam and Md Mamunur Rashid' as well as Prof Stewart Trost from the Queensland University of Technology and Prof Carol Maher from the University of South Australia.

The 10'000 Steps program will help build the application and find the large number of people needed to perfect the chatbot' but Prof Vandelanotte said incorporating it into the website could still be a few years away.

"I'm absolutely over the moon that we have received this funding. This is the big project I've been looking for' for a long time'" he said.

"I am extremely proud of my team in securing this funding as these grants are among the most competitive in Australia.

"If the project is successful' we will have invented an entire new class of physical activity intervention that is bound to help thousands of people to live more healthy lives' it will improve their quality of life and happiness' and it will reduce the prevalence of chronic disease and the burden on our health care system."