By MADELINE HUGHES
The day before starting his senior year at Champlain Valley Union High School, Milo Cress sat in an interview with Shelburne News to talk about his whirlwind summer. He was still finishing up his summer reading, fresh back from a trip visiting family in Colorado.
Between AP calculus summer work problems, Cress gave interviews to national news organizations such as The New York Times and National Public Radio about his activism in reducing the use of plastic straws through the “Be Straw Free” campaign.
In 2011, the then-fourth grader Cress combined data from multiple plastic straw manufacturers to determine that people in the U.S. use an estimated 500 million plastic straws a day. The Shelburne 17-year-old’s statistic was widely distributed this summer after a plastic straw ban went into effect in Seattle in July. Since then, the movement to ban straws has spread, and other localities and companies – the city of San Francisco, Starbucks, American Airlines just to name a few – have voluntarily gotten on board to ban, reduce or eliminate the use of plastic straws as a way to reduce harmful plastic waste in the environment, particularly the oceans.
Environmental activism is just one facet to this gregarious and inquisitive high schooler, who is also interested in technological activism.
“It’s a life of curiosity,” Cress said, reflecting on his trajectory. His questions lead him from one subject to another; to push the limits of how much change he can affect, he said.
“This planet is going to be ours – we live here right now. We have an individual and collective responsibility to it,” Cress explained noting that he sees his environmental and computer science work falling into that role of responsibility.
In high school, Cress has been increasingly intrigued by math and computer science. Last year he had the opportunity to explore those subjects through CVU’s Nexus program, where he made his own artificial intelligence system.
Artificial intelligence is defined as intelligent machines that work and react like humans. Siri and Alexa voice-recognition computer software are examples of familiar artificial intelligence applications.
Cress’ system is not as complex as those. It is a three-part algorithm that can encrypt messages. The code-based program acts as a computer translator that makes sure that one part of the algorithm cannot read a message from the other.
This will be his second year of the Nexus program continuing his study in artificial intelligence.
“Ahead of the curve”
Cress was recently appointed as the student member of Vermont’s 14-person Artificial Intelligence Task Force created this year by the Vermont Legislature, which is the first of its kind in the country.
The task force has been charged with making recommendations on the growth and use of artificial intelligence in Vermont. Their first meeting was Tuesday.
When the task force was being debated in the Legislature earlier this year, Cress testified in favor of creating it. Rep. Brian Cina, D-Burlington, proposed the task force because he wanted to explore artificial intelligence development in Vermont, and get as diverse as a group as possible to do so.
The panel is made up of people from multiple state agencies, academics, and representatives from the Vermont State Labor Council, the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, and the Vermont chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.
Quoting President Abraham Lincoln, Cress said: “The best way to predict your future is to create it.” He said he hopes that in serving on the task force he will be able to help “foster responsible implementation” of artificial intelligence.
“Our goal is to get ahead of the curve,” Cress said about the group. He likened artificial intelligence to cell phones – he doesn’t want regulation of the products to be an afterthought like regulating texting and driving. Cress’ knowledge of artificial intelligence and his youthful outlook played a role in his involvement.
“My generation in a few years – even now – [is] designing the next generation of artificial intelligence technology,” Cress said. “And I hope they take the responsible approach.”
Vermont’s role in developing artificial intelligence landed on the map when robot Bina48 rang the bell to the New York Stock Exchange in February. Bina48 is the human-like robot with social and emotional knowledge based on the memories of people.
In talking with developers at Terasem Movement Foundation, the Lincoln-based company which created the bot. Cress said he found that the developers consider Vermont to be a great place to develop artificial intelligence applications.
Support from CVU
As a junior in high school Cress started independently studying advanced calculus 3 through CVU’s Nexus flexible pathways program, where he also delved into his interests in computer science.
“Milo came to us for the math… and was interested in computer science as well,” Nexus teacher Amy Wardwell said. “His focus opened up and he became more aware of the legislative process and how he can affect change.”
Cress was able to take a deeper dive into subjects around math and computer science that interested him, but were not offered in the typical classroom setting. And he received school credit for it.
He would be pursuing his interests “whether the school supported me or not,” but the fact that he gets credit is definitely a perk, Cress said.
Now in its third year, the Nexus program currently has 40 students who have a block a day set aside for independent study projects – though students often spend more time on their projects.
Topics for student projects range from working to create a YouTube channel, to working on Christine Hallquist’s campaign for governor, to Cress’ study of artificial intelligence. Projects range in workload; part of the experience is learning about setting and achieving goals, said Nexus teacher Troy Paradee.
Setting these goals, Milo was able to “drive himself through that coursework, which in it of itself is such a valuable tool,” Cress’ mom, Odale, said. “It helped him to articulate through these explorations where his interests do lie. He couldn’t have taken four classes, but he could explore four topics.”
Outside of school Cress is also continuing his environmental advocacy as a policy advisor to Burlington City Councilor Adam Roof regarding disposable plastics. He has speaking engagements lined up including the Vermont Leadership Summit this October and the 2019 Global Best Practices Conference in Dallas in January.
Also on his plate: college applications. Cress said he hopes to go somewhere that embraces this type of flexible learning.
“When I was five I wanted to be an astronaut. I can still see that, but I think I’m going to pursue computer science,” Cress said.