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Tri-Valley Hero: San Ramon's Ruchir Baronia, family scare inspires invention

DVHS junior receives Innovation award for creating Rescuer app

Dougherty Valley High junior Ruchir Baronia displays his Rescuer app, an original program that earned the San Ramon teen the 2017 Congressional App Challenge award from U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell as well as this year’s Tri-Valley Hero award for Innovation. (Photo by Erika Alvero)

Ruchir Baronia may be the recipient of the Tri-Valley Heroes Innovation award. But he's preparing for a day when human innovation runs out.

"At a certain point, we'll start to run out of actual ideas and actual innovation and new things to learn," said the 16-year-old junior at San Ramon's Dougherty Valley High School. "And at that point, artificial intelligence will be ... it won't replace us, but it will work with us and complement us toward continuing our exponential trend of innovation."

This complementary relationship is evident in his latest Android app, Rescuer, which allows people to call for help using multi-sensory modes if they cannot reach their phone for some reason. The app, inspired by a family emergency, earned him the 2017 Congressional App Challenge award for Rep. Eric Swalwell's U.S. Congressional District 15.

"I know there are a lot of big people in the industry -- Elon Musk has said artificial intelligence is the greatest danger to humanity," Baronia said. "But I definitely disagree with that."

"Personally I feel that it can totally complement human innovation and provide for the greater good," he added.

Baronia's coding days began in the eighth grade, when his mom suggested that he not whittle his free time away on video games, but instead do something useful, like learn coding. He started watching programming tutorial videos on YouTube, sometimes for hours at a time.

"It kind of spiraled into almost an addiction," he said.

After some experimentation, his first published apps were games, like Balloon Popper (yes, you guessed the premise) and Tile Tap, where the user has to speedily tap a moving red tile. He then chose to take his "almost an addiction" a different direction.

"I decided to go into more practical use cases," Baronia said.

It is said that necessity is the mother of invention, and Baronia's first practical app, Blare, was born of his tendency to lose track of his phone. Blare runs at all times, and allows a user to find their phone by calling out a key phrase -- it also led to his interest in and foray into voice recognition technology.

"That was the first time when I realized, wow, software can really be applicable to real life," he said.

Then, a few years ago, his Alzheimer's-afflicted grandfather in India fell while in the kitchen, unable to get up, or reach his phone on the counter to call for help. Help eventually came, but the incident got Baronia thinking.

"What if his phone could hear his cries for help, and contact someone?" Baronia said.

The Rescuer app took him a few years to create, as he slowly added on different features and components, and as he considered the multitude of dangerous situations that could necessitate the app's usage. Perhaps a senior falls, as his grandfather did, and can't reach their phone. Or maybe someone is being attacked and needs to call for help without attracting the attention of their assailant.

Parents might want to keep tabs on their young children on their way to and from school. (But lest helicopter parents should abuse the tracker, it is possible to turn off that particular feature -- as Baronia does.)

In its current state, the app operates around four key features: voice recognition, a volume pattern, an automatic text response and a simple button to press to call for help.

With voice recognition, certain phrases will trigger a message sent to pre-set emergency contacts.

"You want something with multiple syllables and something you wouldn't say in day-to-day life," he said. "Because if you set your key phrase to 'Help, I'm in trouble' or something, then the person that's putting you in trouble will know."

(Baronia's parents have become accustomed to hearing him repeat his own key phrase of "oranges and rainbows" over and over in his room, as he tests the app.)

The volume pattern feature triggers a message in a similar manner, but using the volume buttons on the side of the phone. And with the automatic text response, a contact can determine the whereabouts of the Rescuer app user with a simple text -- for example, if a parent texts their child a certain, pre-set phrase like "Where are you," they will receive back the child's location, and even possibly a photo or audio file of the surrounding area, depending on the app's settings.

Outside of emergency scenarios, this last feature has real potential in the classroom, Baronia said -- students having their phones confiscated when parents call in the middle of class is not uncommon.

Baronia entered Rescuer into the Congressional App Challenge last year, as a way to get publicity, he said. The challenge, initiated in 2013, allows high school students in participating districts nationwide to submit apps they created, with winning apps displayed in the U.S. Capitol and featured on the House of Representatives website.

The official contest competition operated similar to other hackathons Baronia had entered, he said, and he was declared the winner on the day of the event.

The Android app is now at almost 5,000 downloads and has received positive feedback overall, Baronia said.

"With the reviews, when I read them, it's mainly people saying, 'I think this could be really useful for me. And I'm praying to God I don't have to use it,'" Baronia said.

He takes his innovative leadership to school as well, writing about software through an online platform he created called Millibit and by starting a technology blog at Dougherty Valley called Tech Bytes, which currently has about 60 students signed up as contributors, he said. He's not exactly sure what he wants to ultimately do career-wise, but he plans to stay in the mobile and AI realms, perhaps someday working as a freelance developer or starting his own company, he said.

"Basically not work for someone, but create," he said.

He gave a TEDx Talk in the Dougherty Valley library last March called "How I Taught My Computer to Rap." On a literal level, he explained in his talk how, through programming, he taught his computer to spit out Shakespearean-style vernacular, and then rap those lyrics, after adding into the system beats created by a musician friend.

But underneath this funny, performative premise, the talk underscored his larger philosophy about the role of AI in the future of human innovation.

"Although AI can create these really amazing things, it will still need some human intervention to make it applicable," Baronia said.

"The combining was human intervention, but the actual production was AI," he added. "The point I was trying to make was that AI plus human intervention can create innovation."

Hero FYI

* In addition to programming, Baronia also runs track and field at Dougherty Valley High in San Ramon.

* Baronia initially started learning to code by watching YouTube programming tutorials.

* He previously participated in a research project at Stanford University that focused on comparing linguistic patterns of adults to those of children.

* Baronia hopes to learn iOS programming languages in order to be able to create apps for iPhones in addition to Androids.

* Almost 5,000 people have currently downloaded the Rescuers app.

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