AI, machine learning tapped for Imagine Cup

Students from Nanyang Polytechnic (left to right) Sean Wong, Chew Zhi Qi and Lian Min with their invention , the Smart StethoScope, at the Microsoft Imagine Cup 2017 finals.
Students from Nanyang Polytechnic (left to right) Sean Wong, Chew Zhi Qi and Lian Min with their invention , the Smart StethoScope, at the Microsoft Imagine Cup 2017 finals. ST PHOTO: YUEN SIN

Singapore team makes it to quarter-final of international contest with medical invention

An application that can, at the touch of a finger, draw on facial recognition technology to help a blind person "see" who or what is directly in front of him.

A device that can gauge a person's risk of depression just by detecting his facial movements and tone of voice.

A decade ago, such inventions that tap advanced systems like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning would have been impossible feats for most tertiary students.

But the rise of cloud computing systems and mixed-reality products has powered the ability of students to add such capabilities to their applications, more than 50 of which were on show at the Microsoft Imagine Cup World Finals in Seattle, Washington, two weeks ago.

Since 2003, technology giant Microsoft has organised the Imagine Cup, which brings together aspiring developers, entrepreneurs and technologists from all academic backgrounds. The contest spurs them to develop new technology applications, create a business plan and understand what is needed to bring a concept to market.

The stakes for the contest, which marked its 15th anniversary, were higher this year. The prize money for the top team doubled from US$50,000 to US$100,000 (S$136,000), and the winning team also bagged a mentoring session with Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella.

The battle for the prize kicked off at the Microsoft headquarters on July 24 with a technology showcase, where students from institutions of higher learning presented their inventions to judges at their booths.


Fake news is a global problem, and it is common for hoaxes to appear during events like elections... It affects people on a personal level.

MS TIFANI WARNITA, who built an application called Hoax Analyser with her teammates from the Bandung Institute of Technology. It can detect fake news by cross-checking the item with available information sources online.

Representing Singapore was Nanyang Polytechnic's Team HeartSound, made up of Mr Chew Zhi Qi, 21; Mr Sean Wong, 19; and Ms Lian Min, 20.

In April, they were crowned champions of the Microsoft Imagine Cup in Singapore and went on to represent the country on the world stage.

They made it to the quarter-final of the July contest with their invention - a device that can detect abnormal sounds in the heart.

Utilising the cognitive services available through Microsoft's Azure cloud platform, Indonesian student Tifani Warnita and her teammates from the Bandung Institute of Technology built an application called Hoax Analyser that can screen text and images to detect fake news by cross-checking them with information sources online.

"Fake news is a global problem, and it is common for hoaxes to appear during events like elections," said Ms Tifani, 22, who is studying information systems and technology.

She and her friends had first-hand experience of the problem. During the Jakarta bombings in January last year, there were many unverified messages circulating that warned of more attacks later in the day.

"It affects people on a personal level," she said.

A few booths away, 19-year-old Filipino student Christian Cepe pointed his phone at his teammate Jasmine Raymundo, 19, from the Lyceum of the Philippines University-Laguna. The phone announced: "You are seeing Jasmine sitting at the table with a laptop and smiling at the camera. Jasmine is feeling happy."

Their application, called Minerva, taps a suite of cognitive services which can help the visually impaired identify what is in their surroundings.

It can also remember faces and differentiate bank notes.

A team from the Czech Republic's Czech Technical University emerged as the champions of this year's competition.

Their invention, a glucose meter for children with Type 1 diabetes, can be customised with different coloured or printed cases to appeal to kids. It can transfer data collected on glucose levels to cloud via near-field communication technology.

Children can receive rewards like toys if they manage the disease correctly by keeping their blood sugar levels in a moderate range, which can be achieved through ways like eating a healthy and balanced diet. This is facilitated through in-app games that can incentivise them to take such steps.

Microsoft's vice-president for worldwide education Anthony Salcito said the projects this year were a lot more advanced in what they could deliver.

At least 23 teams had projects that featured artificial intelligence.

"One of the biggest challenges of Imagine Cup (in the early days) was that the go-to market potential of some projects... could be limited, as (resources are needed) for production, supply chain, re-sellers and so on," he said.

But due to cloud capabilities, students' applications or devices can be pushed out to users more easily, he added.

Microsoft's corporate vice-president for growth and ecosystems Charlotte Yarkoni said the competition does not specify what kind of technologies students should use in their projects. But technologies like AI may feature more prominently because companies and researchers - recognising their capabilities and potential to sift through information and solve problems in today's data-rich environment - have accelerated their development and accessibility.

It is the open-endedness that keeps the long-running Imagine Cup competition popular with students, she said, as it creates passion and energy for their projects and helps see students through the many gruelling rounds.

"If there is a standardised curriculum that we try to roll out and ask people to develop a solution for a specific problem, then the quality of our submissions will be very much diluted... I think that this project-based, community of interest-based approach (particularly at the university level) is where you are going to see a lot acceleration of education happen."

To that end, institutions in higher education may have to figure out how to adapt standardised curricula to accommodate more collaboration and online sharing as more technologies emerge to support this trend.

"Technology is a great enabler... and schools have to be receptive to that," said Ms Yarkoni.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 07, 2017, with the headline 'AI, machine learning tapped for Imagine Cup'. Print Edition | Subscribe