AI Scholars create voice-activated tech for global good

ASU hackathon produces ‘skills’ for children with disabilities, voters, students and recyclers

November 7, 2018

“Honey, where’s Mom?”

“Count to 10 and I’ll be there shortly.” ASU AI Scholars create voice apps for good Download Full Image

This simple exchange is an example of how an Amazon Echo Dot app, known as a skill, can serve as a connector between an anxious child and a parent or caregiver. 

Honey Caregiver was the winning skill created last weekend by Control-Alt-Elite, a team of Arizona State University freshmen participating in the AI Scholars hackathon, a program supported by Amazon Web Services Educate for students interested in developing voice-activated technologies. 

The first cohort of nearly 700 AI Scholars has received Amazon-supported workshops, developer kits, free Amazon Cloud credits and Amazon Echo Dots. 

The hackathon, which attracted about 75 student competitors who formed 10 teams, required the use of Echo Dot technology to solve a problem in one of three categories: education, sustainability and disability resources. Hackathon participants competed for academic scholarships and an opportunity to meet with Amazon leadership.

Honey Caregiver team member Haily Shigeta, a global politics freshman, explained that children with Down syndrome or autism can become anxious when their routines are upset or they are separated from their caregivers.

“Using the Echo Dot, we can reinforce routines that are so important and offer reassuring words in the caregiver’s voice,” Shigeta said.

In addition to using the caregiver’s voice, the skill can incorporate customized options, such as a messaging app to enable incident-specific responses and voice-guided relaxation techniques. 

Other team members were Joseph Dicke, software engineering major, and Karishma Sood, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication student.

Recycle Buddy, the app created by team Cereously Good Hackers, provides users with regional information about what can be recycled and where.

“Do you know if your disposable cup is recyclable?” asked Kenna Zimmerman, a computer science major. “Recycle Buddy knows, and will not only tell you if it’s recyclable in your area, it can tell you where the nearest recycling plant is located.” 

The team’s business plan includes getting information directly from local recycling operations.

Other team members included Tara Paranjpe, computer science major; Aubrey Berger, biomedical engineering major; Joshua Burgett; mechanical engineering major; and Aidan O'Gara, economics major. 

The top two teams received $5,000 scholarships for each team member and a trip to Amazon headquarters in Seattle.

“The hackathon was a great opportunity for AI scholars from a variety of majors and backgrounds to work together on innovative ideas and solutions using the Amazon Alexa voice platform,” said John Rome, deputy chief information officer and self-proclaimed voice evangelist at ASU. “It was exciting to see all the comradery and teamwork of these college freshmen and amazing to watch all the great and creative ideas they come up with.”

Two teams tied for third place and received $1,250 scholarships for each member. 

Versed Voter, created by Team #1 in Innovation, provides local election information about candidates and initiatives. According to Karissa Lepley, a global studies major, existing apps focus only on national elections. 

“Our content comes from a variety of nonpartisan sources and includes information about when and where to vote in your district,” she said.

Other team members included Sean Land, business management major, and computer science majors Brent Li, Alvin Lin and Preet Patel.

PACE, an app by Team Okay Google, teaches young students how to study.

“It’s especially useful for students with attention problems,” explained Parker Poole, an environmental engineering student. “You turn off all of your electronics and rely on Alexa to notify you at the end of your scheduled study interval and you take a break for five minutes. It’s better than using a phone timer because you aren’t distracted by playing a game or checking your messages.”

PACE can also interface with Blackboard or CanvasBlackboard and Canvas are educational learning management systems., enabling students to run their grades through an algorithm that recommends study times for each class.

Other team members included Jacob Markson, an aerospace engineering major, and Zak Sakata, a computer science major. 

The Sparky Award provided $100 gift certificates to aerospace engineering major Brianna McCague, arts major Jania Owens and political science major Trevor Webb for their New and Improved Ms. Alexa Teacher app, which allows teachers to keep lesson plans in the cloud and provide audio access while teaching. 

Terry Grant

Media Relations Officer, Media Relations and Strategic Communications


Conservation International partners with ASU’s Decision Theater on innovative tool

November 7, 2018

Climate change. Species loss. Pollution.

These are well-known consequences of economic development threatening human and ecological health. International efforts to mitigate these threats are also familiar, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions, protecting endangered animals and cleaning our air and waterways. Cracked, dry earth with grass poking through. Download Full Image

However, perhaps the most crucial threat is also the most neglected — land degradation. 

Approximately 1.3 billion people depend on polluted or degraded agricultural land. This leads to reduced agricultural productivity and access to water and increased carbon emissions. It is a complex problem with serious implications for food security, health and sustainable development. 

Arizona State University and Conservation International are working together to solve it.                                                          

On Oct. 17–18, ASU and Conservation International unveiled a new tool designed to help decision-makers understand the type and extent of land degradation in a given geographical area and the costs and benefits associated with specific policy interventions. This tool was designed by the Decision Theater and visualized across their immersive, seven-screen environment. 

”The Decision Theater environment allows groups with multiple perspectives and anchored positions to objectively examine the trade-offs of different outcomes,” explained Rahul Salla, Decision Theater associate director and technical director. “Interacting with the model in the Decision Theater, they can make their own discoveries as they investigate possible futures, leading to more informed decisions.” 

For several months, the software developers and program managers at Decision Theater worked hand-in-hand with Conservation International experts to design and build this tool. The interactive data visualization integrates information derived from Trends.Earth, an existing tool funded by the Global Environmental Facility and already used by 146 countries to analyze land changes.

The Decision Theater convenes decision-makers in a collaborative, visually immersive, information-rich environment. The objective is to create better, more informed decisions involving complex problems. They model, simulate and visualize data from disparate sources to provide a complete vision of a problem and the system surrounding that problem. 

“The experience of the DTDecision Theater team made it possible to build a tool integrating massive quantities of data needed to identify areas for restoration in a visualization that is still usable and accessible to nonexperts,” said Alex Zvoleff, Conservation International senior director of resilience science. “This allows users direct access to both the underlying data, as well as the simplified summaries and cost/benefit calculations that are necessary for decision-making,”

This tool was presented before a collection of Conservation International board members, industry leaders and philanthropists at the ASU Barrett and O’Connor Center in Washington, D.C. An ASU-hosted reception immediately followed.  

“This is a prime example of how a nonprofit organization and a higher education institution can work together to craft solutions,” said Amy Scoville-Weaver, ASU-Conservation InternationaI relationship manager. “By pooling our scientific expertise and leveraging our own strengths, we are able to work together to create something new with direct implications for change.” 

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification — to which 196 countries are signatories — is committed to achieving land degradation neutrality, or stable or improved land health, by 2030, a goal that requires a combination of avoiding and reducing land degradation and restoring degraded lands. ASU and CI will continue to work together to explore suitability and applications of the Trends.Earth and Decision Theater tool to support countries in achieving this target.   

ASU has partnered with Conservation International since 2016 to make measurable advances on conservation and to train the next generation of conservation leaders. For more questions on the partnership, please contact Amy Scoville-Weaver.

Written by Holly Smith, Decision Theater