(January 14, 2022) A teen with responsibility and accountability, her endeavours find solutions to global issues. Niharika Shukla was just 12 when she noticed how difficult it was for autistic children to pick up new skills. This was especially true for children diagnosed late with disability. Having volunteered for autism and learning disability support groups, the Indian teen mulled over it. Soon, she had her answer – a tool to diagnose autism spectrum disorder early, helping thousands.
The 14-year-old student at Cumberland Valley High School, Pennsylvania, USA developed the Autism Diagnostic Tool, an artificial intelligence algorithm and device which uses auditory biomarkers and AI to diagnose autism spectrum disorder.
A STEM believer, Indian teen inventor Niharika already has quite a few feathers in her cap at a very young age. Her work with AI was recognised by the Capital Area Science and Engineering Fair, a Wisconsin-based organisation that showcases youngsters’ research talents. Shukla is a part of Girls with Impact, an entrepreneurship and innovation academy, a programme that equips girls with entrepreneurship skills. The student, innovator, researcher and inventor is also the 2021 Science Fair Grand Champion and Broadcom MASTERS Top 300.
How to help those on the autism spectrum
What led Shukla to the invention was the close observation of children with ASD, and what late diagnosis acerbated. Children with ASD are bullied, self-injure themselves, have learning difficulties and a regression in abilities. “It felt wrong that children could be diagnosed with ASD as late as age 12, and not get the treatment they need,” Niharika Shukla tells Global Indian.
After close observation and research, she identified that characteristic vocal features, auditory biomarkers indicate the presence of ASD. “Using auditory biomarkers, I wanted to create a new test to diagnose ASD in children in a more accurate, affordable and quick way,” Shukla explains.
The device first uses microcontroller-based hardware to collect audio through an inbuilt microphone. The data collected from the hardware device is sent to the computer for backend processing, for voice-feature analysis, and after a few rounds of analysing the data, the device diagnoses autism spectrum disorder, with the final results sent by bluetooth, to a mobile app. The Indian teen inventor is currently working on improving her algorithm, gaining a deeper understanding of AI, and collaborating with mentors to bring her innovation to a wider audience. The young inventor is optimistic.
Most recently, Niharika received a scholarship to Karlie Kloss’s Technology and Innovation Camp, Kode with Klossy, to learn programming. Initiated by supermodel and coder Karlie Kloss, it offers free coding camps for girls aged 13 to 18 across the United States.
More inventions on the anvil
During the pandemic too, Shukla was busy. Observing that many faced problems with not being able to accurately measure health data at home, Niharika donned her thinking cap again. “You can’t visit the doctor during a pandemic, and I wanted to create a solution,” she adds. Her invention – HealthVitals, a low-cost, at-home health monitoring device checks pulse data, blood oximetry, and temperature, was introduced in 2021. “One can monitor their health and proactively prevent serious issues,” smiles the Indian teen inventor.
Love for microcontroller projects
Using microcontroller devices to solve problems, she explains, “Small devices that include microchips, memory and the ability to connect to external sensors and devices, one can programme microcontrollers to perform specific actions.” Niharika started puttering with microcontrollers during lockdown, working on many projects. “They could be anything, as big as my prototypes for HealthVitals, or something as small as an LED display screen for my room! Microcontrollers and sensor technology fascinate me – I see so many possibilities for this technology in the future!” the young scientist happily explains.
Fun learning science since childhood
Shukla fell in love with science at a very young age – grade one – when she would sketch designs of devices. The affair only embellished as she grew. “I loved science and technology. I see the ability to address issues in my community and help people! If there’s a fire in my town, technology is the first thing that alerts firefighters to save families. In many ways, science and technology are one of the most powerful and helpful tools of our generation,” the Indian teen says.
The apple, and the tree
Parents Bharti and Rajiv Shukla are IIT and Harvard alumni. Her elder sister, Neha invented a cap — SixFeetApart in 2020 to ensure social distancing during Covid-19. All this has ensured that this brilliant “apple” did not fall far from the tree! While her sister Neha made her family proud being featured on the Nasdaq screen at Times Square for her innovation, Niharika is herself taking after this STEM family’s aspirations. “Neha motivates me because I see how her work directly impacted so many people. She inspires me! My sister and I are close, and we both lift each other up, and help each other stay motivated!” shares the little innovator.
Daily regimen of the young inventor
Her day during Covid 19 begins with online Zoom classes and reviewing coursework. “After a quick snack, I get into my work for innovation and STEM,” chirps the Indian teen inventor. Not just a science geek, Niharika is artistic too – she unwinds playing the piano. “I’ve been playing the piano for the past six years. I also enjoy painting, drawing, and reading new books,” adds the Indian teen.
Bharti and Rajiv Shukla are her biggest motivators. While Bharti works in management consulting for tech and government sector projects, Rajiv works in the space of finance and healthcare, thus their home conversations can be as complex as AI and ML or just simple as ‘what’s for dinner?’ The Shukla sisters have their parents to mentor them through their innovations. “We all worked together to create a little solar-powered car. My sister and I assembled the car, and my parents were so surprised to see it rev on a hot summer’s day!” she laughs.
India is close to her heart
The Shukla family visited India just before the pandemic – warm summers with family, catching up with cousins and grandparents, and imbibing the culture.
Shukla now plans to follow her sister Neha and dabble into wearable technology, looking at personal safety and preventing child trafficking. “I’m also excited to learn more about emerging technology like artificial intelligence, gene-editing, nanomaterials through online resources, courses, and reaching out to mentors! I hope to partner with companies like UNICEF to bring my innovations to a wider audience,” says the pony-tailed science whiz.
- Follow Niharika Shukla on Linkedin