Bloomington teen visits Chinese university to research the future of AI – WGLT

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While most kids his age were at the pool or playing video games last summer, one Bloomington teen spent his vacation at a Chinese university researching Artificial Intelligence [AI].

Shashi Salavath is a junior at the Illinois Math and Science Academy [IMSA]. He applied for the rigorous boarding school as a freshman at Normal Community High School; Salavath gravitated toward math and computer science since elementary school and easily adjusted to IMSA’s challenging academics and campus life — although he missed his mom’s cooking, at first.

“That took a little bit of adjusting,” he said, “but I haven’t looked back.”

Westlake University in Hangzhou, China, recruited STEM-focused schools for its inaugural, month-long pre-college science and engineering program. Salavath was hand picked for IMSA’s cohort and assigned to an engineering track; other classmates focused on biology and chemistry. Each student was paired with an undergraduate at Westlake who acted as primary investigators [PIs] in the research lab — while serving as cultural ambassadors.

“It was an awesome experience, top to bottom,” Salavath said. “From the very moment we got on the airline we were introduced to a new culture. [The PIs] would eat with us and we’d play soccer when we had time. I remember the first time they taught us how to use chopsticks and I got really fluent at it.”

On top of a rich cultural experience, Westlake’s top-of-the-line laboratories exposed students to high-impact equipment like 3-D printers and model submersibles to support their research projects.

“We had a lot of presentations from people in the top of their fields,” Salavath said.

Salavath focused his time on AI applications in two different labs: one focused on submersible remote-operated vehicles [ROVs] and another exploring how drone swarms and 3-D printers might be used to construct major infrastructure — though he said robots won’t be building bridges and skyscrapers any time soon.

“Research like this was also really cool,” he said. “The experience overall was pretty amazing, and I would say it was a summer well spent.”




Salavath visited China’s Moganshan Mountains, pictured, to learn more about sustainability and test drone applications in farming.

Deep water exploration

Salavath’s work exploring AI technology as it relates to submersible ROVs had two primary objectives. AI software like computer vision can help identify new flora and fauna and provides a protective measure should any hardware fail during an underwater mission.

“We looked at the OceanGate submarine disaster last year,” he said. “If things were to go wrong or if there’s a sudden need for navigation, AI could take over.”

But training AI to effectively supersede human error or hardware failures requires human input. For example, it took Salavath hundreds of tries to teach a model submersible ROV to avoid obstructions in a small tank.

“These things take time to train, which is a bottleneck,” he said. “Obviously, making sure they’re safe and accurate is at the forefront of what we’re trying to do here.”

The future is artificial

While drones with hard hats and hammers might sound like science fiction, AI applications like self-driving vehicles and ChatGPT are already here.

After returning from China, Salavath now spends one day a week at Northwestern University researching AI applications in health care. Some day in the not-too-distant future, doctors and computers could be collaborative partners on diagnoses and treatment plans.

“The rate of progression with this whole AI boom is astonishing,” Salavath said. “The path forward is examining the limitations of AI and making sure they’re used in a safe way.”

Salavath points to data ownership as a limitation, and misuse of AI leading to deep fakes and other nefarious applications.

“These questions are something a lot of other researchers are looking at and asking questions about,” Salavath said. “These concerns are very important to be looked at before we look at wide scale implementation.”

Where some see AI as a kind of 21st century space race, Salavath sees his cross-cultural experience as engaging in a diversity of thought that will benefit everyone.

“Regardless of where you’re from or what your background is, I think everyone—whether that be researchers or people who actively work in the field, to the average worker — I think everyone’s interested in the possibilities that advancements in AI can have. We have so many fields that this is immediately applicable to, and that’s what makes it such an interesting time to be and work in.”

Salavath has begun applying to colleges. He’s open to the best offer, but likes the campus at Stanford University. He’s also keeping an open mind life beyond college, remaining agnostic about a career in academia versus the corporate or public sectors.

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