'I, Robot' Inspired Invention Wins Science Prize

The Siemens Competition announced the winners of its college scholarships during a ceremony at George Washington University. Six individual students and six teams of students competed in Washington after winning regional competitions in November. They presented their research to a panel of judges Sunday.

Benjamin Clark of Lancaster, Pa., won the top individual prize for his research on binary stars which, unlike the sun, have companions. The 15-year-old plans to major in physics or astrophysics.

Akash Krishnan and Matthew Fernandez of Portland, Ore., won the team prize for their work on speech recognition technology. They developed a computer algorithm that can detect a speaker's emotion better than current technology and will split the $100,000 team prize.

Krishnan, 16, and Fernandez, 17, were taking a break from trying to come up with a project idea and watched ‘I, Robot’. The movie featured a robot that could detect when its user was stressed, and they decided to try to improve on the existing technology.

The algorithm the duo wrote has an improved accuracy at 60 percent, which is better than the 40 percent for a previous system. They claim their work could be utilized to improve computer automated phone systems, helping, for example, to tell if a caller was becoming irate. "You could automatically redirect them to a actual human person, so that you could handle those kind of angry people better," Krishnan said.

“The duo built a computer algorithm that allows us to listen to an auditory signal from a human, analyse it and assess the emotional state of the speaker”said competition judge Gert Lanckriet from the department of electrical and computer engineering, University of California, San Diego.

“It can help identify if the speaker is angry, sad, bored, anxious or happy. They came up with a strong creative idea and brought it from theory into practice. Using an emotional speech database with 18,215 files and five emotions -- anger, positive, neutral, emphatic, rest-the team developed, trained and tested a classification engine to determine emotions from an input signal” he elaborated.

The teens are also working to develop a wristwatch-like device that would display colours or happy and sad faces to help autistic children identify and interpret other people's emotions.

Krishnan plans to study computer science and electrical and mechanical engineering in college, while Fernandez plans to study engineering and computer science.

"What just blows me away is how advanced they are in their thinking," said Dr. Thomas D. Jones, a former NASA astronaut who headed the judging panel. "Truly these research projects are often at the cutting edge of their field."


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