AI-Powered Virtual Human Companion Receives $1 Million Grant For Veteran Suicide Prevention

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has awarded the USC Institute for Creative Technologies (USC ICT) a $1 million grant for their Battle Buddy application. This unique AI-powered virtual human companion is designed to provide veterans with tailored health, wellness, and suicide prevention support. The app is able to be used with mobile phones or smartwatch wearables, making use of passive sensing to better serve veterans. This technology has the potential to help reduce veteran suicide rates in the United States.

A report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that almost 14% of adult suicides in the US have been attributed to those with military experience. This is mirrored in the VA’s 2022 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, which discovered that the suicide rate for veterans in 2020 was 57.3% higher than for those without military experience. These alarming statistics have led to the VA’s 10-year, $20 million grand challenge, Mission Daybreak, which seeks to reduce veteran suicides by employing a comprehensive, public health approach. The USC ICT team was one of only 10 successful applicants from an original pool of 1,371.

The USC ICT designed Battle Buddy in partnership with the SoldierStrong Foundation. SoldierStrong has generously contributed equipment, software, and clinician instruction for USC ICT’s Virtual Reality PTSD Exposure Therapy system (BRAVEMIND) to be used in the Veterans Administration VA health system. Battle Buddy is designed to address the issues associated with suicide prevention by giving veterans access to a supportive and non-judgmental companion who can be reached at any time of the day or night.

The interactive, embodied conversational agent in the app utilizes content based on the Suicide Safety Planning program of the Veterans Administration for brief daily check-ins with veterans. The app’s purpose is to become familiar with the individual and to accompany them through challenging moments, as stated by Arno Hartholt, the lead computer scientist in charge of Research and Development Integration at USC ICT. Furthermore, veterans can connect their wearable sensors to the app, which will detect sleep, exercise, and other signals of overall well-being. The app will help personalize mental health care for veterans, and it is accessible, which means it will be available whenever the veterans need it.

USC ICT’s ambition is to use the $1 million prize to expand the reach of their Battle Buddy app. The team devoted much effort in crafting a program that is both effective and convenient, and the award will facilitate their mission to make the app accessible to veterans around the United States. In November, the USC ICT/SoldierStrong team secured $250,000 in Phase 1 funding and dedicated eight weeks to developing their solution as part of the Mission Daybreak accelerator. Subsequently, they traveled to Washington, D.C. to showcase the Battle Buddy prototype and present their long-term research and development plan to the other Phase 1 award recipients.

Chris Meek, co-founder, and chairman of SoldierStrong, noted that addressing the crisis of veterans taking their own lives requires more than investing in prevention efforts. Meek emphasized the importance of leveraging innovative approaches that are only possible through partnerships that share valuable information and capitalize on each partner’s strengths. Meek further commented, “effectively leveraging real-time data via easy-to-implement technology can – and will – significantly enhance individual wellbeing and aid efforts to reduce the overall number of suicides.”