On Thursday, Rao became TIME magazine’s first-ever Kid of the Year for her astonishing work using technology to tackle issues ranging from contaminated drinking water to opioid addiction and cyberbullying, and about her mission to create a global community of young innovators to solve problems the world over.
The young teen in an interview with Angelina Jolie, Hollywood actress and Human Rights activist, said, her journey began at quite a young age with the sole aim to make the world a better place.
“I was always someone who wanted to put a smile on someone’s face. That was my everyday goal, just to make someone happy. And it soon turned into, How can we bring positivity and community to the place we live?” she tells Jolie in their virtual catch-up.
“And then when I was in second or third grade, I started thinking about how can we use science and technology to create social change. I was like 10 when I told my parents that I wanted to research carbon nanotube sensor technology at the Denver Water quality research lab, and my mom was like, “A what?”,” she said.
Rao recently launched an anti-cyberbullying service based on AI/Machine Learning called “KINDLY” which is an app and a Chrome extension that helps identify bullying and thus play a role in preventing it. The app “is able to detect cyberbullying at an early stage, based on artificial-intelligence technology,” she says.
“I started to hard-code in some words that could be considered bullying, and then my engine took those words and identified words that are similar.” “You type in a word or phrase, and it’s able to pick it up if it’s bullying, and it gives you the option to edit it or send it the way it is.”
“The goal is not to punish. As a teenager, I know teenagers tend to lash out sometimes. Instead, it gives you the chance to rethink what you’re saying so that you know what to do next time around.” Being the first-ever Time Kid of the Year, she says she hopes it will motivate more women and young girls to take up STEM.
“I don’t look like your typical scientist. Everything I see on TV is that it’s an older, usually white man as a scientist. It’s weird to me that it was almost like people had assigned roles, regarding like their gender, their age, the color of their skin,” she says.
“My goal has really shifted not only from creating my own devices to solve the world’s problems, but inspiring others to do the same as well. “Because, from personal experience, it’s not easy when you don’t see anyone else like you. So I really want to put out that message: If I can do it, you can do it, and anyone can do it.” She is currently working on an easy way to help detect bio-contaminants in water—things like parasites.
“I’m hoping for this to be something that’s inexpensive and accurate so that people in third-world countries can identify what’s in their water,” she says. Time partnered with Nickelodeon to find the most influential kid of 2020. The list was narrowed down from 5,000 young Americans to five finalists, who will each receive a cash prize and be given a chance to contribute to the magazine.
The shortlist included artist Tyler Gordon, 14, designer and activist Jordan Reeves, 14, world’s first crayon activist Bellen Woodard, 10, and youth hunger activist Ian McKenna, 16.