Meet the 15-Year-Old AI App Developer Changing the World at Stanford
Adrit Rao is not like most teenagers. At 15, he goes to high school. But he also is writing peer-reviewed medical papers for a Stanford internship, creating an AI-powered tool to solve medical issues, managing five apps he created, and running a nonprofit he founded, Arètech Inc.
Rao got into programming at 8 years old and app development at 12. He's been interning at Stanford University since he was 13, the age when he started presenting at medical conferences. If you're feeling intimidated, you're not alone.
Some would call Adrit Rao a genius. But besides brains, he has tenacity, confidence and conviction. Work + Money caught up with Rao to talk about his latest app to help the deaf community, his impressive journey and the secret to success at such a young age.
His Journey Begins With STEM, Block Programming and Swift
*Interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Work + Money: How did you start with block programming and how did that lead to you building your own apps?
Adrit Rao: Schools around Palo Alto try to incorporate a lot of STEM into programs. Block programming was introduced to us as kids. But when I was around 8 years old, I wanted to migrate from block programming to something like text-based programming, so I tried out a few languages.
And what I realized was that it didn't actually fascinate me that much because I wanted to see an end product that could be used to solve a problem. And that's when I thought of apps.
Using Apple's programming language, Swift, I got introduced to programming apps. At first, it seemed like it would be really daunting, but there are lots of courses online, which really helped me in my journey. And I only started that when I was around 12 years old. But because of all the great resources out there that I think a lot of kids can use, it was really easy. What was really exciting for me was that I could write some code in Swift and right next to that, I could see an app come to life.
Two weeks or so after [I started developing apps], Apple was holding its annual developer's conference called WWDC. Every year, they hold a Swift student challenge. When I saw that opportunity, I wanted to test my luck. To my surprise, I actually won that year. I was one of the 12 kids that met Tim Cook. It was super exciting at that time.
Using Technology to Improve Lives
Work + Money: That's cool. It seems like a lot of what you do, both in apps and your Stanford research, has to do with using technology to improve lives. What makes you feel so passionate about that?
Adrit Rao: I realized how accessible apps are because just from my computer at home, I could reach a lot of people. A program that I wrote could reach lots and lots of people's iPhones using Swift. So that's when I started to think, "I can actually make a difference, even though I'm young. I could still try to find a problem in my community or a social problem (or now, in my Stanford internship, a healthcare problem), and I could try to create an app that could solve that problem."
That's kind of what my goal has been with my apps. And now I have five in the app store. My most recent one is called Signer. I was reading an article about how there is a lot of discrepancy between the number of people who communicate in American Sign Language and the number of people who [can’t communicate with it]. So there's a big communication barrier between the two communities.
So I used one of Apple's frameworks called Core ML — I used [it] in the past just to experiment, but this was my first time using it in one of my apps — to train a model or an algorithm to look at videos of people's hands and automatically convert them to ASL. I've done so with around 10 gestures so far, and I'm constantly trying to update that and increase the library of gestures.
Real Solutions That Make an Impact
Work + Money: Your first apps focused on solving problems like helping kids track community service hours, or helping people calculate the wait time in grocery store lines. How did you make the jump from that to medical issues?
Adrit Rao: When I started app development, I was just focused on social change, on what problems I could find on my own. But then I realized I wanted to start to focus on something with a real impact. But that didn't mean I was going to stop these social change apps. I want to keep doing that.
But I was reading about how AI is being used in the medical field to solve a lot of problems. They were developing AI systems that could detect diseases and do chest X-rays and other amazing things. So I thought, "Can I take a unique view into this and use my app development knowledge and some of my AI knowledge to build apps that could be in the hands of doctors?" Because I know that accessibility is really important, being able to develop a solution that can be directly put into the point of care.
That's when I got a Stanford internship by contacting several professors. That's how I did it. I contacted around eight professors, and to my surprise, around six of them wrote back to me, which was really big.
The first one who wrote back is a professor of vascular surgery, but he's also a director of digital health at Stanford. So he's really in the area that I wanted to target. And by working with him, I was introduced to a problem called peripheral arterial disease. It's basically how the arteries in your legs get occluded or corroded over time.
After that, I got to develop an app called AutoABI. It’s actually in the clinic right now being tested and, hopefully, it can be a real medical solution someday.
Benefits and Opportunities of Being a Young Student at Stanford
Work + Money: I love it. What have been the challenges of being in high school and interning in a college context?
Adrit Rao: It's all a learning experience. After I got the internship, I've been able to grow my connections and also grow my knowledge. I'm able to bounce off ideas from PhDs and doctors, which is really great. It's amazing that just by reaching out to professors now I have the ability to develop an app in Swift that can actually make a difference. And that's what really surprised me.
I got the internship when I was around 13. It's been more than two years. But, that two-year process has led me to develop an app that is being used in a clinical setting. And I've even had the chance to visit the hospitals and see my app being used in the office, which is really great.
It really validates my work. It feels good because I knew that I wanted to make a difference from the start with Swift. And by working hard toward that goal, that's how I reached that point. Seeing my app being used is really exciting.
Learning by Doing and Proving Doubters Wrong
Work + Money: Have you met any resistance from people either at Stanford or in the tech field that might not take you as seriously because of your age?
Adrit Rao: Yeah, sometimes I've encountered people who don't take me seriously because of my age and things like that. But if they present me with a problem, I show them that I can develop a real app that can solve the problem. So I think that's how they take me seriously.
They're really open. As of recently, I've hit over 10 research publications with faculty at Stanford. And most of them I've first authored, which is really great because they’re giving me a chance to write impactful research papers. It’s really exciting. I write the whole paper and then they'll edit it, and we'll have a few meetings, and we'll go back and forth. But they've given me the flexibility to write the paper. The whole environment's really supportive.
I've also gone to a lot of conferences to present my work, so I think that they have faith in me to put my face out there as a 13-, 14-, and now 15-year-old.
Pro Tip: Specify Your Skills and Self-Teach to Set Yourself Part
Work + Money: How do you develop the confidence to write to Stanford professors and present at conferences filled with people who have doctorates when you're still in high school? And how could other high school kids emulate this?
Adrit Rao: What's really important is first getting familiar with a certain skill. When I contacted the professors, I told them that I was able to develop apps, I had some AI knowledge, and I would like to combine these two. So you should really specify what your skills are and try to become really good at those skills.
In terms of app development, I'm fully self-taught. I've never taken a class. But the amount of content there is online like YouTube videos and courses really made it pretty simple for me to just watch a lot of videos and gain knowledge.
Some parents may push their kids to go a certain path, but in my case, my parents never actually told me to do something specifically. This was my own self-interest. But I do think it's really important to start to self-teach because that's how you really learn.
He's Not Forgetting About Work-Life Balance
Work + Money: You're still in school, and you're doing your internship while managing five apps. How do you balance your time?
Adrit Rao: I work on apps after I finish my schoolwork. After I come home, I try to do my schoolwork as fast as possible, and then I get to my internship. I’ll look at some emails or meet with my professor, and then I'll work on an app. But mostly I work on apps over the weekend.
[To relax], I'm a competitive fencer. I've been fencing for a few years, but because of COVID, it's all stopped. So I'm waiting for that to start again. Other than that I like to play basketball with my friends. And recently, I like to do cinematography.
Big Things Ahead for This Young Technologist and Entrepreneur
Work + Money: What plans do you have for the future?
Adrit Rao: My main goal throughout the rest of high school and even in college is just to do the same thing that I'm doing: develop apps because I think apps are so amazing. So many people have iPhones nowadays. So by developing apps, it really caters to a large population.
There are a lot of great technologies coming out, but if we can't actually put them into the world and have people use them, then what's the point? I'm specifically interested in medical research. but I'm gonna continue to keep developing apps using my knowledge of Swift and becoming better at that because I think that's really important.
I'd really like to go to Stanford. It's been my dream school since I was little. And I want to study something along the lines of biomedical engineering, not just computer science, because I want that medical side to be there in whatever I do.