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From STEM to Emerging Technologies: An Interview with Ashley Mo

Emerging technologies are everywhere and are revolutionizing the way we view and interact with the world around us. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of technology has helped create new paths for findings to ease the pandemic - whether it be used in the creation of treatments for patients or pastimes for those stuck indoors. A specific technology, Artificial Intelligence, was used in research to detect asymptomatic COVID-19 infections. This was conducted by professor Brian Subirana at MIT. Ashley Mo, a 15-year-old innovator and student, decided to write an article about this research (you can read her article here) and recently sat down with me to tell us more about herself, her article, and her interest in STEM.

Photo of Ashley Mo

1. Tell me a bit about yourself!

I’m a 15-year-old innovator who absolutely loves all STEM, especially emerging technologies. My interest began last year in grade 9 when I was a part of a program, Technovation Girls, where I got to program an app of my choice with some friends of mine. At the time, I didn’t know how to code at all, and it wasn’t until that summer when I took a Python course just for fun that things only went deeper from there. Coding was something I thought I would dislike; from my perspective, every step was very logical, which I didn’t think would pique my interest; however, learning how to code opened up so many doors, and I soon learned that all technologies were built off of this singular foundation. In October 2020, I began looking into various technologies, and I got really hooked on learning about AI and Machine Learning (ML). For weeks, I got myself lost in learning about neural networks and how they’re the building block to every type of AI technology, from image recognition to natural language processing, etc., and how all these functions were and will be applied to various real-world industries. At the end of that month, I got the chance to do a global AI hackathon with random students from Toronto, New York, and Boston, which was such an awesome experience! Here’s an article I wrote then, talking about our idea and some of our major takeaways! Fast forward to now, I’ve recently been really intrigued by the pandemic. Every day I hear interesting news regarding COVID-19, and so I decided to take some time to research more about it. Despite it being a pandemic, I think it’s so awesome because we haven’t had a breakout like this since the 1920s when the Spanish Flu hit; it’s literally a once in a lifetime experience. There’s so much to learn and so many opportunities that can arise out of a problem this widespread.

Although this area is still relatively new to me, I’ve been browsing through ways in which AI is being applied to help fight the current circumstances. Anything I find incredible, I write about, a recent article being how an AI voice-recording tool is being used to detect COVID in asymptomatic patients! Aside from STEM (Ahah yes, you can tell I love stem)

  • I love to dance (I did ballet, jazz, and contemporary for a large portion of my life, but now I’m moving on to do more hip hop!)

  • Reading is a yes from me! Recently read The Martian (I also LOVE space technologies)!

  • Skateboarding, which I learned how to do a few months ago!

2. What do you do as an innovator at The Knowledge Society (TKS)?

First, I would like to say that I wouldn’t know what I would do if I weren’t an innovator at TKS. The program has opened my eyes to so many new innovations, and to be able to engage with the TKS community has been so rewarding. Since September, I have gotten the chance to develop basic knowledge in so many different emerging technologies (we call them “explores”), including quantum computing, AI, brain-computer interfaces, human longevity, space technologies, blockchain, and viruses. Additionally, there are weekly sessions where I get to actively share thoughts about these areas (there’s usually a “theme” if it’s a technology session) with other students. They’re always so much fun, and they keep me thinking for the entire rest of the week. Alongside learning about STEM, we also focus a lot on different mindsets and how to maximize our potential in short periods of time. Every once in a while, we have the opportunity to do real-world challenges; so far, one of them being the global AI hackathon and a more recent one being collaborating with Instacart, a 17.7B dollar grocery delivery business. Our team was chosen a few days ago to pitch live to a panel of Instacart judges, and we’re in the process of preparing! I’ll be writing an article about it soon, so make sure you check that out! Additionally, every innovator gets the chance to dive further into an “explore topic” that they found really clicked with them. I’ve chosen to focus on learning about viruses, where I will be writing articles, replicating projects, and finally creating and implementing my own idea. I’m so excited to announce that I finished an article about the basics of viruses, which you can read here! Feel free to reach out to me if you have any feedback or if you would like to talk about anything related!

3. Talk to me about your article. What did your research tell you about the article you wrote about using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to detect asymptomatic COVID-19 infections?

Currently, I’m subscribed to the MIT Tech Review Newsletter, which has so much great news about new technology (I recommend checking it out!), and I stumbled upon this topic that caught my eye. We all know that asymptomatic patients are incredibly hard to track and are still as contagious as those infected who do show symptoms. From the outside, it’s difficult to tell the difference between them and a healthy person, making the containment of the virus much more difficult. However, the exciting part that I found was that a team at MIT noticed that the differences between a non-infected individual and an infected asymptomatic person could be easily detected through a cough recording. As humans, we are unable to hear this difference, but for AI, it can be done in seconds, which is much more effective than having to wait days for test results to come out. This idea of cough detection didn’t come out of the blue; it was actually previously used to detect patients with neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Dementia. This was because those with these illnesses experienced neuromuscular impairment (different vocal cord strengths, emotional states, respiratory performance, and muscle degradation) which affected their speech. This alteration in verbal sound is what the AI technology can detect and use to predict whether a patient has a specific brain disorder. And it’s accuracy? It’s rate surpassed the ones of every single pre-existing model. Brian Subirana, a Research Scientist in MIT’s Auto-ID Laboratory, was aware of this method and how precise it was at spotting cases and realized it could be applied to COVID detection. It turns out people who were infected with the virus experienced strikingly similar neuromuscular impairment as those with brain illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and Dementia. So he decided to put the existing algorithm to the test on patients with the coronavirus. (You can read more about how the algorithm was built and how it works in more detail in my article!). Ultimately, they had thousands of infected people voluntarily submit forced cough recordings on a website, which they used to train and test the existing AI neural network, regardless if they were asymptomatic or not. Without much tweaking necessary, the networks were able to quickly track patterns within these four biomarkers (different vocal cord strengths, emotional states, respiratory performance, and muscle degradation) and build an algorithm of classification. The team was able to hit an accuracy rate of 98.5% and detect all asymptomatic cases, which is incredibly high considering the fact that this was all just from cough-recordings!

4. What other projects have you worked on that involve emerging technologies or upcoming research?

My journey has just started, so I have not yet done any massive projects on emerging technologies. Currently, I’m trying to expose myself to new areas of STEM and write about them to gain knowledge and build up my Medium account. However, within the next month, I will be replicating a pre-existing project related to the topic of virus detection (for experience), which I will be able to share about. Additionally, a friend and I will be working on making an NPL google meet class summarizer, which automatically translates audio recorded in a meet from speech to text and then paraphrases that text using NLP. We understand the struggle of online school, with material moving so fast, and so we thought this tool would help ease the experience. Later on, closer to April, I will be doing my own research and applying my knowledge to innovate an idea of my own, which I will turn into a big independent project that will carry through until June or beyond (still not so sure what I’ll be doing, but it will require lots of searching and development!).

5. Anything else you want readers to know?

Although it only sounds like I’m really into AI and viruses and their interconnection, I literally love any emerging technology. I’m also very intrigued by the subject of climate change, and solutions such as cellular agriculture and more sustainable methods of transportation seem like promising solutions with great potential. There’s also the topic of regenerative medicine and gene editing, as well as brain-computer interfaces and space technologies! Anything you can name (it doesn’t even have to be STEM-related; anything discussion-worthy will get me on my feet). Feel free to reach out to me anytime to talk about anything. I love interacting and learning from other people as well!

It is evident that Ashley is full of dedication and passion towards the STEM Field and emerging technologies. Her role as an innovator has allowed her to pursue projects to broaden her horizons in these topics and also share her findings with others. Interested in reading all of Ashley’s articles? You can check out her Medium Account here: https://moas-81882.medium.com/. As for now, we wish Ashley the best of luck in all of her future endeavours!

Featured image courtesy of fauxels via Pexels

Article Authors: Ashley Mo, Asima Hudani

Article Editors: Valerie Shirobokov, Victoria Huang