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### Enhancing Waste Sorting Efficiency: AI Outperforms Humans, as Demonstrated by Two UMass Graduates

Ian Goodine, one of the creators of AuditPRO, called the AI machine a “fancy photo booth for …

There has been a lot of discussion surrounding the potential risks associated with artificial intelligence, commonly referred to as AI. However, many individuals are leveraging AI to tackle critical issues like climate change and waste management. Among these innovators are Ian Goodine and Ethan Walko, the founders of the Somerville-based startup rStream Recycling. Their groundbreaking creation, AuditPRO, is an AI program that utilizes a vast collection of trash images to enhance waste sorting efficiency beyond human capabilities. Ian Goodine and Ethan Walko recently engaged in a conversation with Judie Yuill, the guest host of GBH’s All Things Considered, to delve into their innovative work and explore the future implications of employing artificial intelligence in waste management. The following is an edited transcript of their enlightening discussion.

Judie Yuill: Ian, could you provide us with an overview of how AuditPRO operates?

Ian Goodine: AuditPRO essentially functions as an advanced trash photo booth. Users interact with it similarly to a conventional dish drop-off point in a busy setting. Instead of directly discarding their waste into a bin, they place it on a conveyor belt within the system.

Upon detecting an object, the conveyor belt initiates the process by capturing images and videos of the discarded items, which are subsequently utilized for analytical purposes. Through our AI algorithm, we can accurately identify the disposed items.

Yuill: So, AuditPRO doesn’t autonomously sort the trash yet, correct?

Goodine: That’s correct. At rStream, our ultimate goal is to develop a robotic sorting mechanism. However, as a startup, our initial phase at UMass Amherst involves implementing this auditing system to ensure the precision of the system’s core—the artificial intelligence—prior to commencing the sorting process effectively in the near future.

Yuill: Ethan, how did this concept come to fruition? I understand it originated from a semester-long project during your time at UMass Amherst.

Ethan Walko: Indeed, rStream originated at UMass Amherst while Ian and I pursued degrees in mechanical engineering. Our exploration of recycling challenges during a senior design project evolved into an independent venture during our graduate studies.

The inception of AuditPRO stemmed from our aspiration to validate the data we had gathered firsthand. Through previous manual waste assessments on college campuses, we recognized the arduous nature of this process and the value of obtaining verified granular data. AuditPRO streamlines this validation process automatically and continuously, eliminating the laborious and messy aspects associated with manual waste sorting.

Yuill: Ian, AI can be harnessed in various domains. What motivated you to concentrate on recycling and waste management?

Goodine: While there are numerous remarkable AI research avenues, recycling and waste management pose some of society’s most formidable challenges. From a computational standpoint, it’s a complex technical challenge for a computer trained to make decisions based on visual inputs.

The extensive variability in the waste stream presents a significant hurdle. Each item may exhibit slight differences, encompassing diverse waste categories such as cans, bottles, and fibers. This intricacy renders waste management an engrossing technical challenge for AI and an exciting realm for us to explore.

Yuill: Ethan, though still in its nascent stages, you secured federal funding from the U.S. Department of Energy. How do you perceive this achievement, and what does the future hold for this initiative according to your vision?

Walko: The Department of Energy’s funding is not only financially beneficial for research and technology development but also serves as a validation of our project’s viability. The endorsement from a panel of waste recycling and technology experts underscores the promise and excitement surrounding rStream, our mission, and our technological advancements.

With this funding, we aim to advance and implement the sorting system, integrating the intelligence from AuditPRO. Our objective is to launch the second-phase pilot in 2025.

Yuill: How would you address individuals who predominantly focus on the negative aspects of AI?

Walko: Responsible utilization of AI holds immense potential. It’s crucial to engage in discussions concerning mitigating biases in AI algorithms during the learning process. Dwelling solely on the negative facets restricts the recognition of the myriad positive applications of this technology.

Yuill: Ian, what’s your perspective on this matter?

Goodine: Technology’s essence lies in enhancing human experiences. Leveraging technology to eliminate laborious tasks, like waste sorting, enables individuals to dedicate their time to more productive endeavors. This underscores the transformative capacity of artificial intelligence and associated hardware. We are thrilled to spearhead this evolution.

Yuill: Do you possess a patent for this innovation?

Goodine: Yes, we hold U.S. patents for the sorting mechanism and AuditPRO system. Additionally, we have intellectual property rights concerning our proprietary AI algorithms and development methodologies.

Yuill: Despite your relatively young age, you are pioneering a venture that could potentially become a substantial livelihood for you and create employment opportunities for others.

Goodine: Indeed, we are delighted that our initiative has not only supported us but has also facilitated the employment of a team of six technical experts. This venture has provided them with an avenue to apply their skills within the clean tech sector, particularly in the underexplored domain of waste and recycling. This progression excites us and signifies a promising future for this industry.

Yuill: While currently employed for waste sorting and recycling, can this technology be extended further along the waste recycling continuum?

Goodine: Absolutely. This aligns with the Department of Energy’s focus through the Riemann Institute. They are keen on exploring resource-efficient sorting approaches, potentially establishing processing centers in regions where large-scale plant investments are impractical. Expanding our reach along the commodity recovery journey, domestically and internationally, presents a significant market opportunity for us.

Yuill: Before we conclude, is there any pertinent aspect that I haven’t touched upon that you would like our audience to be aware of?

Goodine: It’s crucial to highlight our substantial progress with limited resources. Our successful implementation of the phase-one pilot at UMass with AuditPRO, coupled with our resource expansion through equity fundraising and grants from entities like the DOE and National Science Foundation, underscores our commitment to realizing our long-term vision of robotic sorting efficiently and promptly. This journey is driven by our determination to deliver tangible benefits promptly.

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Last modified: February 12, 2024
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